on 22 July 2005
It is my practice to review poetry books based on the first reading, which I consider the 'heart' reading rather than after subsequent readings - the 'learned' reading, where one uncoils the riddled intricacy of the writing and its associated histories. I feel the heart reading is more important because it tells me that the poet's emotions are alive in the writing rather than just some remote intellect creating puzzles. For me Heaney's genius will always lie in the twisting and turning of language and his marvellous insight. While I abhor Greco-Roman myth and name dropping in Modern Poetry, Heaney doesn't overdo it and this collection may not be his best, but it doesn't disappoint. The entry into each poem at a point where you feel you missed something and need to keep up brings an instant urgency to the reading. The subtle layering of each line with meanings is masterful. And the language, as usual, is brilliant.
My favourite poems after this (first) reading are 'Lupins', 'Turpin Song', 'The Clothes Shrine', 'The Gealtacht', the wonderfully evocative 'The Real Names' and many of the poems in the second section, especially the last two: 'Seeing the Sick' about his father which ends 'His smile a summer half-door opening out/ And opening in. A reprieving light./ For which the tendered morphine had our thanks.' and the title poem 'Electric Light' which simply demands reading. Out of chaos, beauty 'The smashed thumb-mail/ Of that mangled thumb was puckered pearl,' This book is steady Heaney conducting word-alchemy in the light of his mind's eye.
on 26 April 2001
Seamus Heaney's new collection is a much more mature, and possibly slightly more difficult collection to get into than his previous books.
One or two poems however mimic his early works very well; in the title poem "Electric Light" Heaney returns to his childhood and the wonder at first coming across the miracle of electricity. Although this may seem irrelevant from today's point of view, it had sharp consequences in rural Ireland's past, and is in a similar style to many of his older poems in the manner that he looks back to his childhood and his inability to comprehend the world around him.
Despite the requirement for an in-depth knowledge to fully appreciate some of the harder poems, especially those in the section where he writes tributes to 'lost' poets such as Ted Hughes, there is something here for every reader. This book is a great introduction to Heaney's work and after reading it you are likely to want to try some of his older collections.
on 2 October 2001
Electric Light has attracted some negative reviews on account of Heaney's apparent failiure of deal properly with his Northern Irish heritage, I recall an earlier Heaney line, "' when are you going to write something for us?'" Heaney states then and there that he will do so on his own terms and that it is not an obligation - as such, critism that this collection does not address a concieved failling is harsh.
With this books being concerned with, as everyone likes to say, flux, does raise some problems. I begins with a short semi-remembrance piece on Toombridge - the scene of soft " blasting vowel sounds" and this offers up the evocative image " the slime and silver of the fattened eel" A creature in an extreme state of flux - when out the water.
This is where any legitimate criticism can be aimmed. Heaney presents flux in correlation with his own life; School plays, his wife Marie in labour, expeditions with recently departed friends. Whilst this is an effective method of presenting flux in a discerning way, Heaney does not step outside himself, does not offer flux in the frission of verse, he rather ( skillfully) catalogues it. It transpires that great flux elludes here, merely the flux and transience of simple life is offset with things that remain. Perhaps this is more effective, after all a pure representation of flux may not have really been the singular aim here but the weighty final section of elegies does pound down heavily on a sense of movement - aside from the slow, brooding variety of mourning. Antonin Artaud said, " I cannot shake this idea that I was dead before I was born", So taken on a detached level Electric Light, to a meaningful extent, places itself outside the movement of life - the very essence of life being flux this book firmly steps into the dark regions beyond and, on deep meditation, will negate much of what comes before ( unless considered on a poetically optismistic level - in which case we down-play its worth).
This said, it is as polished as we'd expect from Heaney, I most like, so far, cold water " zipping my boy nipples" - In Vitruviana. Clearly it lives up to Heaney's giant standing but surely we must question any failiures in its coherence rather than celebrate it for attempting a cohesive selection.
What more can Heaney do?
on 25 April 2001
Heany's first collection of new material for three years, Electric Light may well prove to be among his best. As usual, the book becomes richer with every reading, and the initial impact of the work (which is little short of breathtaking) is complemented time and again as one delves ever more deeply into the images Heany sculpts. Whilst the collection is still very new, one feels confident in predicting that it will prove to be as timeless as Heany's previous work. Definite Booker potential here.