Archives for posts with tag: Seamus Heaney

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A friend just sent me this – a Seamus Heaney poem displayed in a New York subway station.

The poem is Scaffolding:

Masons, when they start upon a building,

Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,

Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done

Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be

Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall

Confident that we have built our wall.

This was one of the very first poems that Heaney wrote, and as he explains in this short video where he also reads the poem, Scaffolding was written as an appeasement to his wife following a disagreement:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNYBwF7lKLA

It is now two years since Heaney’s death in 2013. His last words, Noli timeri, texted to his wife and which mean ‘do not fear’, are reminiscent of his words to her in Scaffolding, at the beginning of their life together, ‘Never fear’. Heaney’s gravestone has recently been erected in his native Bellaghy:

2015-08-14_new_11964283_I2

‘Walk on air

against

your better

judgement’

He continues to inspire…

CQ

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An interesting piece on ‘last words’ in The Conversation [http://theconversation.com/that-final-vowel-reading-seamus-heaneys-last-poem-32539] encouraged me to reflect on, not so much final words themselves but more how we interpret them. I suspect this is particularly true when we consider the poet.

When Seamus Heaney died, much attention was given to the last words he uttered, via text, to his wife: ‘Do not be afraid’. Heaney actually typed the words in Latin, ‘Noli timeri’, which, ironically given the poet’s own superlative classical translation expertise, was misspelt in various media transcriptions [http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/how-so-many-people-got-seamus-heaneys-last-words-wrong/279330/].

As The Conversation article suggests, Heaney’s last poem – a mediation on a painting of a canal by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte and completed just 10 days before the poet’s death – cannot escape being analysed in the context of the imminent demise of the poet’s voice. I have always struggled with this issue, which is that we too often gravitate towards a contextual interpretation of poetry, as if the words alone, unexplained, are not enough. For my MA dissertation I argued that the work of Robert Lowell was inappropriately and unfairly adjudicated against the background of the poet’s bipolar condition. I argued for an appreciation of his works purely in the context in which the poet himself presented them.

It is tempting and too easy to over interpret, to satisfy a base and human need to explain everything away. Which goes against the very essence of poetry, where words can stand defiantly alone, and have the power to transport you elsewhere, and manywhere, as such.

Heaney:

‘A poem should take you somewhere different…a poet should be the one least likely to step into the same river twice.’

 

CQ

Seamus Heaney has been a hero of mine for as long as I can remember.

I was due to see him read in London towards the end of January 2013. I did not make it, as my sister died that night. Over the years, the same sister gave me many of Heaney’s poetry collections, and more recently, the glorious gift of the audio collection, read by the poet himself.

So much that I can relate to in terms of the personal impact of Seamus Heaney, the man and his words, has been movingly and eloquently said and re-said over the past days.

I have little to add apart from a few brief thoughts…

The poem Mid-Term Break has always been a favourite of mine. Written many years after the tragic death of Heaney’s younger brother, the poem, as written by the adult, convincingly captures the voice and the imagination of the child Heaney, as he recounts the event as if he were contemporaneously experiencing it.

from Mid-Term Break

‘I sat all morning in the college sick bay

Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying –

He had always taken funerals in his stride –

And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram

When I came in, and I was embarrassed

By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.

Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,

Away at school, as my mother help my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.’

‘…I saw him

For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.’

I love Heaney’s prose, which I first encountered through the essay ‘Feeling into Words’. In it, the poet talks about Digging, the first poem where he felt his feelings had truly got into the text, ‘where I thought my feel had got into words.’

from Digging

‘Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.’

With characteristic humility, Heaney dismissed Digging as a ‘coarse-grained navvy of a poem’, its interest mainly lying in its success in ‘finding a voice’, and arriving at that place where ‘you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them’.

I have just re-read Heaney’s wonderful Nobel Lecture, Crediting Poetry. Here, Heaney credits poetry ‘both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative  between the mind’s centre and its circumference…’for its truth to life…’

In a TV profile that included a series of interviews with the poet in 2009, Heaney was asked about his views on death. He replied that his attitude towards his own mortality had eased with age, and that any sense of fear in particular had gradually diminished. Prescient perhaps of his final words to his wife Marie before he died last week, ‘Noli temere’, which translates as ‘Don’t be afraid’.

Heaney’s poem A kite for Michael and Christopher ends with the phrase ‘long-tailed pool of grief’. Prescient again, on this occasion of a nation’s sense of loss.

We no longer have the man. Yet we do have the words, so many words, which he chose to share. A lasting comfort, of sorts.

CQ

Lasting just over an hour, this three man play by Colin Teevan leaves much to consider. I am still considering, and although I am not altogether sure that I grasped all the various meanings and layers, I gained enough to make it a thought-provoking experience.

The three men – Young Man (Anthony Delaney),  Man (Owen O’Neill) and Old Man (Gary Lilburn) – are together on stage throughout, digging, and talking, and telling stories, the secrets of their lives gradually exposed and shared as the shovels do their work:

‘Let the shaft glide through your hand – ‘

The play feels rooted in an Ireland of a certain time (The ‘Kingdom of Ireland’ ceased as such in 1801), when young men headed off, ‘making something of yourself”:

‘I take the road eastwards towards the sea,

And England.’

England here equates with London, Kilburn and the Galtee More in Cricklewood specifically, and perhaps predictably.

‘Pints are drunk that night,

And the talk is mighty.’

Also unsurprisingly, the Ireland left behind, we learn as the stories unfold, is one rife with incest, rape and murder. It is also the land of tinkers, of shrines, and, somewhat ironically, Our Lady of Succour…

The Old Man teases us with a riddle at the outset:

‘My mother is my father’s child,

And my mother’s son my father,

If I believe this is no lie,

Tell me stranger who am I?’

The correct answer is ‘a good Christian’…

Violence, blows, suicide, self-inflicted blindness…tragedy suffuses the narrative, with more than a hint of a Greek tragedy prevailing.

In the end, there is no sense of redemption, no sense that truth makes a positive difference. An ambivalence towards the very notion of stories appears in the opening scene, as the talking begins:

‘Go on believing, if it helps,

Telling yourself stories,

If it helps put down the day.’

Leaving Ireland has solved little, the past in the end remains inescapable:

‘I look around at them,

Their battered boots and breeches, worn out braces,

I look into their hungry, cowed faces;

These are not the pride of Hackney, Haringey or Hull,

But the lost sons of Kerry, Cork and Donegal.’

The Old Man’s comment that:

‘One road’s the same as another, when you’re digging it.’

made me think of Seamus Heaney’s poem, Digging (Death of a Naturalist, 1969). Here, Heaney initially describes the tradition of digging in his father’s and grandfather’s time, before concluding:

‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

the squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.’

We dig, in our own individual and unique ways, to get at a truth, which feels intuitively worthwhile and valid. What we unearth, about ourselves and others, may not however be what we expected or hoped to find.

CQ