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