5 Fosterage

  For Michael McLaverty

Heaney recounts a brief encounter thirteen years earlier with one of Ireland’s finest writers; he selects a quotation from Wallace Stevens in support of his acknowledgement that McLaverty had much to teach him, a modest ‘rookie’ still searching for his poetic voice.

A quotation, a time and a place pinpointing a meeting with a benefactor etched on Heaney’s memory. He was 23 and newly cubbed in language. He particularly recalls McLaverty’s intensity when he gripped/ My elbow.

McLaverty’s assertive advice is akin to that of the Viking counsellor in North: Go your own way./ Do your own work. Quoting from world literature, McLaverty urges Heaney to be emotive, to sound that note of exile in his work but without giving himself blood-pressure: to hell with overstating it:/ Don’t have the veins bulging in your biro.’

The empathy that the old poet felt for Gerard Manley Hopkins’ inner turmoil is evident from the copy of the Journals that Heaney was given by McLaverty and still cherishes. The annotations are revealing of an old man in emotional tune with the original texts: his buckled self/ Obeisant to their pain.

As with Goya Heaney pays a final tribute, saluting McLaverty’s sensitivity and perceptiveness: He discerned/ The lineaments of patience everywhere. His meeting with such a dominant character nourished and encouraged him: he fostered me and sent me out, with words/ Imposing on my tongue like obols.

  • McLaverty (1904-1992): regarded as one of Ireland’s finest writers: drawing his material from amongst people and places he knew; a painter of human emotions and ethical dilemmas; possessing a strong moral sense and a unique Irish Catholic perspective; he was an ex-headmaster: hence perhaps his use of imperatives freely as he offers advice to a fellow poet; Headmaster of St Thomas’s Intermediate School, Belfast, when Heaney practised there in 1962-63.

  • Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923): prominent New Zealand writer of short fiction; the source of the line ‘I will tell | How the laundry basket squeaked’ has been traced to an entry in Katherine Mansfield’s journal, 22 January 1916.

  • biro: a brand of ballpoint pen invented by Hungarian László Bíró ; in British English the word ‘biro’ was often used as a generic term for any ballpoint pen; McLaverty personnifies it as an extension of the poet’s being;

  • Hopkins’s precedes McLaverty’s advice ”The effect of studying masterpieces is to make me admire and do otherwise.” Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889, British poet, Jesuit priest) in a letter of Sept. 25, 1888, to Robert Bridges;

  • Michael Woods points out the Hopkinsian tension between aesthete (1881, from Gk. aisthetes “one who perceives,”) and aesthetic (from Gk. aisthetikos “sensitive, perceptive,”); the Journals themselves contained GMH’s ecstatic responses to nature providing the raw materials for poetry; he associates both Hopkins and Heaney as possessing a Catholic scrupulosity, that is, moral misgivings, pangs of conscience felt when faced with their own responses that did not quite fit with the former’s Jesuit and the latter’s Catholic ‘training’;

  • lineament: early 15c., ‘distinctive feature of the body’, ‘outline’; literally “’a line’, ‘stroke’, ‘mark’ (from lineare ‘to reduce to a straight line’; figurative sense of “a characteristic” is attested from 1630s;

  • obeisant: ‘obeying’ rather than ‘obedient’; from French obéir; Heaney selects the present participle form rather than the adjectival (obéissant)

  • foster: from O.E.word ‘to supply with food, nourish, support’; further sense of ‘to bring up a child with parental care’ is from c.1200; that of ‘to encourage or help grow’ is early 13c.; all are appropriate to the context;

  • obol: ancient Greek small coin and weight sometimes placed on the eyelids of the deceased;

  • The citation is fromWallace Stevens (1879-1955); from “Description Without Place:

Description is revelation. It is not
The thing described, nor false facsimile.
It is an artificial thing that exists,
In its own seeming, plainly visible,
Yet not too closely the double of our lives,
Intenser than any actual life could be,
A text we should be born that we might read,
More explicit than the experience of sun
And moon, the book of reconciliation,
Book of a concept only possible
In description, canon central in itself,
The thesis of the plentifullest John.

  • 16 lines of poetry in a single stanza; broadly 10 syllable lines;

  • the sentence structure, use of punctuation and enjambed lines set the pace of the initial acquaintance, mimic the staccato quasi instructions of the poet-Headteacher, followed by calmer reflection and tribute on behalf of the speaker;

  • use of direct and free indirect speech;

  • reworking of press jargon: ‘cub reporter’;

  • vocabulary switches from the up-to-date (cubbed; biro) to the more archaic (lineaments; obols);

  • McLaverty’s strong, forthright character: gripped; used to instructing people; buckled; imposing;

  • Heaney’s assonant recipe is centred around 10 vowel sounds:

[əʊ] [u:] [ɪ] [i:] [ai] [ei] [ʌ] [æ] [ɜː] [e]

Description isrevelation!’ Royal

Avenue, Belfast, 1962 (nineteen sixty two),

A Saturday afternoon, glad to meet

Me, newly cubbed in language, he gripped

My elbow. ‘Listen. Go your ownway.

Do your own work. Remember

Katherine MansfieldI will tell

How the laundry basket squeaked . . . that note of exile.’

But to hell with overstating it:

Don’t have the veinsbulging in your biro.’

And then, ‘Poor Hopkins!’ I have the Journals

He gave me, underlined, his buckledself

Obeisant to their pain. He discerned

The lineaments of patience everywhere

And fostered me and sent me out, with words

Imposing on my tongue like obols.

  • alliterative effects: initial alveolar nasal [n]; cluster of velar plosive [g]; bilabial [b] of buckled self/ Obeisant;