Seamus Heaney, “The Poetry of John Hewitt”, Threshold, No. 22 (Summer 1969), pp.73-77.

For five years John Hewitt was poetry editor and reviewer for Threshold: in the sixteen numbers where his name appears as poetry editor, there are ten reviews of poetry and if we look at a few typical castigations and exhortations taken at random from these writings we can examine his welcome Collected Poems 1932-67 against the standards he applied to other poets. But before doing so, I feel I should add a necessary extraneous salute to this “Irishman of Planter stock, by profession an art gallery man, politically a man of the left” because his contribution to the artistic pulse of the North has by no means been confined to his stream of poetry. Painters and poets belonging to a slightly older generation than mine have professed to his practical help, his encouragement and unselfish concern for them and their work. By arranging exhibitions and sales, by the publication and reviewing of new writing, he has helped many of our better-known artists and poets into the light. And his lifelong concern to question and document the relationship between art and locality has provided all subsequent Northern writers with a hinterland of reference, should they require a tradition more intimate than the broad perspectives of the English literary achievement. His poetry, of course, has been continually talked about and sought after but one sensed and remembered the flavour of the scattered poems and rare pamphlets instead of having it on one’s shelf at home. Now McGibbon & Kee have had the wisdom to do the sensible thing and publish a volume that spans Hewitt’s whole career as a poet.

That career proceeds quietly and steadily through the movements and fashions at its own pace, “a walking pace,” to use his own description. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Larkin and Hughes have all left their traces on the decades they dominated, but Hewitt’s voice matures and relaxes within its own discipline. The demands of that discipline are implied in his reviews: an emphasis on the poet as maker, a concern for professional standards in the handling of form, a distrust of freedom and extravagance that has not been earned by toil within the traditional modes. Of Padraic Colum he wrote:

He is no artless bard, merely instinctive in his song. He knows what he is doing, and from now on will, for me, be the greater man for that.

Of Austin Clarke:

Clarke, who so often before in his verse-making was as impersonal as a medieval enameller whose care was not for himself but for the chalice and the intricate perfection of his art, now speaks out in his proper person -

and one feels the unspoken comment that it is only after such an immersion in the craft that the personal statement will have poetic validity. A few short phrases will suffice to fill out the picture - “Irish poets, learn your trade”; “technically, he is too careless”; “awkwardness not merely risked but fully achieved”, “insecure metrics, commonplace diction.” And finally a reminder to myself: “I give no weight or authority to any review of poetry that fights shy of quotation.”

Quotation will suffice to show Hewitt’s own tense care in the handling of metre, rhyme and stanza:

Tho many things I love should disappear
in the black night ahead of us, I know
I shall remember, silent, crouching there,
your pale face gazing where the rushes grow,
seeking between the tall stems for the last
black thick the grebe is cruising round to find,
my pointing finger showing it not lost
but sheltered only from the ruffling wind.

This has an almost Augustan poise and directness, married to an elegiac, inward note and inhabits a typical Hewitt area, half-way between statement and evocation. For although he refers to his “strong opinions, vanities,” the verse itself rarely raises its voice, [75] relying on tone, understatement and oblique reference to make its more astringent points. For example, the matter of cultural, historical and religious divisions in the North of Ireland enters the poetry at a personal or dramatic level, never as opinion. A number of these poems reveal a quest for personal identity that must strike many of Hewitt’s fellow-countrymen as a remembrance, involvmg a stubborn determination to belong to the Irishry and vet tenaciously aware of a different origin and cast of mold. A dramatic monologue, “The Colony,” transmutes the Protestant Planter experience into a Roman situation where the citizens of the colony are on the verge of turning native:

The use, the pace, the patient years of labour,
the rain against the lips, the changing light,
the heavy clay-sucked stride, have altered us;
we would be strangers in the Capitol;
this is our country also, no-where else;
and we shall not be outcast on the world.

And this is complemented by the poet’s personal nostalgia for a language, completely possessed. Just as Stephen Dedalus envied the English Jesuit his total inheritance of the English language, Hewitt longs for a fullness of speech:

well rubbed words that had left their overtones
in the ripe England of the moulded downs

and he declares himself ill at ease yet envious also in the presence of the country people whom he embraced for a community of spirit:

I’ve tried to learn the smaller parts of speech
in your slow language, but my thoughts need more
flexible shapes to move in.

Perhaps this two-way pull, back into the grave and eloquent mainstream of English and out into the shifting, elaborate, receding currents of the Irish experience lies behind Hewitt’s poetic voice, a voice that inclines to plainness but yields to the drift and suggestion of a rhythm, that begins to declare but evolves towards introspection, that seeks “thought” (a favourite word) but occupies itself much of the time with the rough edges of the actual.

A volume of collected poems can reveal the geology of a poet’s imagination. The accretions and deposits from various periods have been stratified and bonded together. We can watch growth and detect changes of climate and environment inside the writer’s head. The continuous process in Hewitt’s work has been one of coming to terms, of measuring the self against circumstances. Very roughly, the pattern shows an early period when he examines himself against his native community; then, after his shift to England in 1957, he sets his lonely present against a rooted past, in terms of a lost community and family; and finally, his sensibility surrenders to an inundation by the far but half-remembered world of Greece.

This is an accumulation of honesty and craft, with its beautifully pointed moments of definition and its inevitable realizations of development. The first poem in the collection, “Ireland,” opens a vein that is worked for years:

We are not native here or anywhere.
We were the keltic wave that broke over Europe,
and ran up this bleak beach among these stones:
but when the tide ebbed, were left stranded here
in crevices and ledge-protected pools.

Then his shedding of an Ulster past is lodged in the metaphor of “Jacob and the Angel”:

I will not pause to struggle with my past,
locked in an angry posture with a ghost,
but, striding forward, trust the sunken thigh.

Later still, in “The Modelled Head,” an extremely moving poem of self-examination and revelation, the determination not to let attitudes harden into postures is teased from the poet’s consideration of his own sculptured head -

and I am left with these alternatives,
to find a new mask for what I wish to be,
or try to be a man without a mask,
resolved not to grow neutral, growing old.

Perhaps John Hewitt’s attention to the craft of poetry in his earlier period, his devotion to the couplet, the sonnet, the blank verse, the intense and muted lyric, could be regarded as a mask for what he wished to be - true, rooted, within a tradition. Shouldered out of his island on to “The Mainland” and knowing that if he sails back he will “find it rich in all but what he sought,” he is evolving into a man without a mask. The verse has become free, the statements grope towards something irreducible:

Hand over hand eagerly I crawl back to uncertainty.

That is the kind of authority without dogma that poet[s] stand for and John Hewitt’s collection will be cherished for what has been familiar to us - poems like “The Owl” and “Hedgehog” - and for those accurate, painful quests towards self-knowledge that at once rebuke and reward us. [END]

Bibl. John Hewitt’s Collected Poems 1932-67 and published by MacGibbon & Kee at 42s. [The above article was reprinted in Preoccupations, 1980, pp.207-10.]

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