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Too Narrow in Subject Matter
on 26 July 2011
Human Chain is Seamus Heaney's twentieth collection of poems and I must admit that I have only read two of his collections. He has won many awards including the Nobel prize and I have heard some commentators say he is probably the greatest living poet writing in English. I must be missing something. I don't know if it is a cultural gap but whilst I admire the writing I am afraid that I find the content of this collection too narrow and insular. It seems to me that he lacks that universal appeal of most, if not all, of the great writers.
Most of poems in Human Chain are delivered in blank triplet verse. Although Heaney sometimes makes use of Latin phrases, the diction in most of the poems is simple and straight forward. There are not many flourishes of rhetoric language - not necessarily a weakness. Rhythmically, in the main, the short lines have a staccato detached feel from each other, giving some of the poems a deeply personal feel.
The poems in this collection are tightly condensed and concise. Just when one thinks that one has grasped or eked out a meaning some of the poems take a turn and becomes illusory. So take the title poem, Human Chain, one is intrigued by its allusion to addressing human suffering but one must be equally struck by how that act of kindness is over shadowed by the focus on the narrator's action of: "With a grip on two sack corners,/Two packed wads of grain I'd worked to lugs/To give me purchase ready for the heave" - and on it continues in that self centred vein.
Some of the poems that stood out for me were: "The Conway Steward", where the action in the use of a pen is used to demonstrate the parting or leave taking from someone known or loved. Another was "Uncoupled" a lovely poem about family ties and "The Butts" a poem that sees the narrator delving back into the past to a place called the The Butts, making family connections through things: someone's suit, the smell of clothes and a nice twist in the poem about cleaning someone properly, perhaps an elderly relative.
An interesting collection of poems - yes. But on the whole too narrow in its scope to fully engage me.