from: poets’s lines:
by Ian Duhig / The Dark Horse issue 32
i recently attended a lecture given by Zygmunt Bauman, appropriately for the author of Liquid Modernity, in Leeds new Tetley Gallery, converted from the city’s iconic brewery, closed down after it was taken over by Carlsberg. During the course of his talk, a phrase he kept returning to was ‘no ground’: how there was no ground now to be found for solidarity among the broad mass of workers, no ground for them to stand on and resist exploitation, no ground to defend against the international employer class, no common ground in worldwide ‘pools’ of cheap labour which multinationals can dip into according to their needs: ‘freefloating’ anxiety was our unavoidable modern condition for ordinary people.
Listening to all this I kept thinking of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Anything Can Happen’ after Horace’s Ode 34 from Book I, from Heaney’s collection District and Circle. In my old copy of the Odes, translated by James Michie, the relevant lines I want to consider are rendered as follows:
Even the last known land
Where Atlas takes his stand
Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettlelid.
‘Ground gives.’ In a recent interview with The Los Angeles Review of Books, John Banville declared, ‘A sentence can always be improved. You never finish a sentence. You just abandon it.’ Clearly he is echoing Valéry’s famous statement ‘Poems are never finished, just abandoned.’ However, it seems to me that here we have the essences of poetry and prose in fine, and the difference between them. I cannot see how you can improve on Heaney’s two word, two syllable sentence. You don’t have to look at it very long to realise that it unpacks far more than the original. Rilke was criticised over his translations of Louise Labé for producing versions superior to the original. I am glad of Heaney’s improvement. It is as rich and fertile as the best farmland. ‘Ground gives’ includes within its small compass everything to do with the dependence of all societies on farming, through the Roman empire to Heaney’s own rural background in a corner of the British empire. Heaney has himself used the figure of Antaeus ‘the mouldhugger’ in his poetry; any number of nationalist myths invoke our supposed connection to native soil, but there is no doubt it puts food on our tables all over the world. It provides identity and nourishment, feeding hearts, minds and stomachs.
At the same time, ‘Ground gives’ contains the sense that it gives way, the uppermost meaning in this context, with all the anxiety provoked by that suggestion, as demonstrated by Zygmunt Bauman’s use of the image. Anyone who has accidentally put their foot through ice they thought thicker than it proved to be knows that stomach churning feeling of discovering truly liquid modernity, as new information overwhelms old certainty. I felt my stomach churn in the same way when I heard Seamus Heaney had died: I feel it again as I write this, at a loss for words for losing the man behind his words and the wonder of the words that should have been before him, the astonishment we would have felt before them, as I do before just two syllables of what he left. All I can think of is something occasionally seen on headstones in Irish country churchyards, ‘Ní bás acht á fás’, which means ‘Not dead but growing’, for those we love and lose keep growing in our hearts as we remember them and share our thoughts and memories. Ground gives.
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