Saturday 25 March 2017

The poetry of pubs and pints

Scholars of Heaney, take note. In a poem called An Invocation, written in the 1990s, the Irishman had paid tribute to Scotsman Hugh MacDiarmid for his "chattering genius", only to be told by Karl Miller of the London Review of Books, to whom he'd submitted the poem: "That's wrong. I'm from Scotland myself, Seamus. You once said sheep chatter. And I can tell you Scottish sheep don't chatter -- they blether. Surely you mean MacDiarmaid's 'blethering genius'."

The Nobel laureate duly acknowledged Miller's superior knowledge of Scottish linguistic niceties and when the poem was published (first in Miller's magazine and then in the 1996 collection, The Spirit Level), "chattering genius" had been changed to "blathering genius", which satisfied both himself and his long-time editorial friend.

I learn this from Andrew O'Hagan's introduction to Miller's latest essay collection, Tretower to Clyro (published by Quercus). The book itself is as urbane and pleasurable as anything Miller has written, but it's worth buying anyway for O'Hagan's hugely entertaining introduction, which describes a succession of literary pilgrimages taken around these islands in the past decade by himself, Heaney and Miller.

The remarks about the Irish poet are especially droll, starting with Miller suggesting to O'Hagan that they engage in a competition: "Let's see which of us can make Seamus say something bad about somebody." That doesn't happen, of course, probably due to Heaney's famously benign nature.

When it comes to pubs, he's more at home, too, as O'Hagan observes: "Karl always imagines, in the Edinburgh style, that a beer means a half-pint, but Seamus is a proper drinker and you see pints when he's around."

Heaney recalls meeting Patrick Kavanagh ("I only spent one afternoon with him and I felt lucky to get out alive") and looks back with sorrow on the few occasions when, as a young teacher, he resorted to corporal punishment: "That was terrible, really."

O'Hagan's essay is full of telling little moments like these, whether they be funny or poignant.

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