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Posts tagged ‘Heaney’

Spoken Word 2: Seamus Heaney

There was an evening to commemorate Seamus Heaney on the 20th of November at the Southbank Centre. It is now February. There is no excuse, besides me starting a new job at that time and being really very sorry. The notes I took three months ago on the evening in question now make very little sense*. Partly because I can barely write, but mostly because I got fairly swept away by the band on stage. The Chieftains played music that makes you want to quit the city and roam for a living, howling on occasion. So the audience, already fairly whipped up at the prospect of remembering a poet they all revered, fairly surged at “The March of the King of Laois” as it gathered in speed and complexity, hurtling into an evening of sound ideal for the man and those who wished to think on him in one place.

Andrew O’Hagan as the anchor of the evening (reviews all praised the steadiness of his hand at the tiller, etc.) was carefully deliberate in his reference to Heaney as the anchor for him, and many other writers besides. The photograph of the smiling boy to accompany the audio recording of Heaney reading ‘Digging’ impressed upon me how it became possible to enjoy poetry because of Heaney’s presence in the curriculum, how this poem alone made sense for a long time, and Heaney’s central holding clarity illuminated poetry for so many. In ‘At the WellHead’, Heaney describes his blind neighbour responding to a poem by stating “I can see the sky at the bottom of it now”, much like the first time the sound and words click together.

We were told of Heaney’s humour: apparently he referred to Wallace Stevens as the ‘tycoon of poetry’, and T S Eliot as ‘head office’. The flashes of glee and belt of domesticity provided a reassuring spine of solidity throughout; in ‘Clearances 3’ he delights in peeling potatoes ‘Gleaming in a bucket of clean water’.  He describes his neighbour in ‘The Other Side’:

‘His brain was a whitewashed kitchen
hung with texts, swept tidy
as the body o the kirk.’

This suggests a vacancy, but is reminiscent of the man himself in that the kitchen is the centre of everything, and it would only be right to have his decked out in words. Ordered perhaps, but tidy ignores the inevitable mess that ensues with the passage of time, and rites of passage. Heaney wrote a poem on the death of his brother Hugh “My dear brother, you have good stamina” that made sense of the tragic circumstances by praising his brother for his energy and laughter.

There was talk of listening with one’s inner ear, and of lost time, before we heard Paul Muldoon read ‘Death of a Naturalist’, and the phrase “bluebottles / Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell” triggered both of these things acutely. The menace of frogspawn was so perfectly captured that the feeling “That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it” becomes your own, even if this was not your childhood. Every tingling sense was now elevated to a jangling with ‘Personal Helicon’ when “a rat slapped across my reflection”, but mollified once again when he explains:

“I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

And the darkness is a force that has to be constantly kept at bay, after all. In ‘Forge’ the opening line “All I know is a door into the dark” combines a way forward with the surrounding gloom of a black room, the past, of a world without words.  The ‘dark pit’ of history remains, connected back to nature, and it is through that cord that balance can  be regained. ‘The Guttural Muse’ contains some skin crawlingly evocative images, that of a ‘slimy tench’ and ‘some old pike’, and the only way to recover from these looming horrors was Simon Armitage reading from Beowulf.  Recovery was complete by the time Edna O’Brien read ‘Punishment’, where a female corpse – ‘a beautiful scapegoat’ is described in nautical terms with the “frail rigging /of her ribs”.

The evening concluded with Auden’s tribute to W B Yeats, which is a dark and weighty tribute, but the phrase “The words of a dead man /Are modified in the guts of the living” is a stark way to remind us the poetry does indeed ‘firm the interior life’. After a dose you carry it with you, it warms your belly and makes your ears sharper, I think. A truly great poem, like ‘Postscript’, has the power to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open”. The blood sang in my ears for days after ‘the ones that have known him all along’** carried him in.

The Editors

*For example, what does ‘doused in local weather that was also universal’ refer to? Could have been good.


Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney died a few days before my family went on holiday, so his collected poems came with us. While some members are more devoted to poetry then others, the assembled group are all fairly keen readers. The matriarch, on day three, requested that we all assemble to read one or more of Heaney’s poems aloud. While the turnout was solid, those who opted for a snooze instead were noted and pronounced feckless. The lines quoted below are in the order of the poems selected on that afternoon.

‘Digging’ at the start, as many know this one from the GCSE poetry anthology, and despite this, the ear still loves the sound of the ‘cool hardness of new potatoes’ – you can turn them over in your palm and rub the pad of your thumb over the clots of earth still clinging to the skin. The keen edge of his father’s spade ‘nicking and slicing’, making ‘curt cuts’ in the earth he wrote of so well and often.

Next was ‘Mid-term Break’, where the image of a blooming ‘poppy bruise’ summons the multi-hued knees every child gets more vividly than purple or yellow ever could. Heaney’s acute powers of observation were illustrated here by the exasperated rush of his mother’s ‘angry tearless sighs’.

He wrote ‘The Skunk’ while working as a writer in residence in California. It is about missing his wife Marie, and also about a skunk, ‘night after night I expected her like a visitor’, ‘tense as a voyeur’. The clenched waiting for the patter on his porch (and possibly a ghastly odour) as way of giving voice to his separation is excellent.

The gathering sense of dread in ‘Blackberry picnic’ as the children scramble to pick every last ‘glossy purple clot’ before he ‘Felt like Crying’ when the cache starts to ferment and rot is tangible. This is written, as was his right and style, in his own dialect, which is part of and yet a slightly different lexicon from the language of Ireland. The former is a peninsula to the latter, separated by the tide of shifting context.

The next poem was in fact ‘The Peninsula’, read aloud when we scattered my grandfather’s ashes in the Solent on the isle of Wight, where he sailed in a spectacularly unsuccessful fashion with my grandmother, and where the surroundings and the situation commanded the vision of ‘islands riding themselves out into the fog’. Poems like this allow the listener to uncode landscapes, by observing  ‘water and ground in their extremity’, there are flashes of insight before ‘you’re in the dark again’. No sugar coating here.

The poems ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (on gathering frogspawn) and ‘The Grauballe Man’ are too densely packed to be picked apart in rapid time, but these were the final offerings and demand your full attention, when you have half an hour and a quiet corner.

I was lucky enough to see Heaney in conversation with Karl Miller and Andrew O’Hagan at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2012. At the time I was conscious of the fact this was a privilege, especially when he paused over a section of ‘Digging’ when reciting it from memory only to receive a quiet nudge from his wife in the audience. Naturally that afternoon now retains an even weightier resonance in my memory. Although the Book Festival is one of the least insane parts of Edinburgh in August, it is not usually a relaxing place. For that afternoon, however, the main auditorium was full of old jokes, exhumed memory and gentle prompting as the three on stage created a pocket of calm. Heaney was clearly a wonderfully charming man as well as a dazzling man with words, and one of the great things about his language is that you can translate it endlessly, spinning out the effect of his words endlessly.

The Editors

You can hear Seamus Heaney reading from his poetry at the Poetry Archive.