Foreword

  District and Circle, Seamus Heaney’s twelfth collection since Death of a Naturalist (1966), was published in April 2006 by Faber and Faber. There are 44 titles including 5 sequences – 68 poems in all. Many pieces had already appeared in some form or other in a variety of publications on both sides of the Atlantic. The volume includes some ‘Found Prose’ and a number of translations. Heaney’s work since 1966 has lost none of its diversity, erudition and vitality. In composing poetry Heaney set out to fulfil his writerly needs. The ‘messages’ that emerged were essentially personal ones, not expressed with his readers in mind – accordingly, there are moments when some serious unravelling is required.  In the case […]

The Turnip Snedder

In ‘Stepping Stones’ (p 407) Heaney acknowledges to Dennis O’Driscoll that District and Circle was a time for ‘pouncing’ on poems; the inspiration for this opener was a photograph the poet saw visiting  in an exhibition by modernist artist Hughie O’Donoghue to whom he dedicates the piece. Associated with Heaney’s rural Irish ‘territory’, this manually driven turnip-crushing machine, a piece of archaic agricultural machinery, comes to bear the hallmarks of a medieval war-machine and introduces more modern forms of violence implicit within the first dozen or so poems in the collection Heaney takes us back a good sixty years to a less sophisticated time before the liquidizer and other modern implements, to an age of bare hands/ and cast iron. […]

A Shiver

  The sonnet sets out at some length the physics and dynamics of wielding a hammer. The energy generated brings with it, however, an understanding of its destructiveness. What begins as a sense of physical reverberation affecting the person using a heavy tool ultimately evokes a shiver of fear when, as contemporary history demonstrates, extreme power falls into the wrong hands. The tool in question is the weighty sledge-hammer, commonly used by builders and labourers for demolition. Aware of the possible damage to the untrained operator it is clear that the poet/ farmer’s son has handled such an implement and been shocked by its potential. The poem sets out The way, ‘instructions’ for the safe use of the sledgehammer. Firstly […]

Home Help

  Heaney  recalls two aunts who were very much part of his family upbringing. Helping Sarah Heaney pictures a woman working in the garden: showing little sign of age (young again as the year); neat and demure with tuck and tightening of blouse; active and untroubled by stiffness of the joints (vigorous advance of knee); busy in the vegetable patch (weeding rigs); frugal (the same old skirt and brogues); both well-organised and in charge (on top of things) – in all, a person to be proud of and look up to (a credit) His eye focuses on her clothing: tweed skirt reflective of rurality (pinpoints of red haw and yellow whin), well used and characterful, its threadbare workadayness hard and […]

Helmet

The poem focuses on an Boston fire-fighter’s headgear, symbolic of a breed regarded as god-like ‘supermen’ risking their lives for society especially after 9/11. It was presented ‘formally’ to Heaney in an informal ceremony in Boston. The poem celebrates heroism and  human solidarity. A helmet –  its owner; its provenance –  a Boston fireman’s gift, bearing the name printed boldly on its spread / Fantailing brim , an elongated shoulder-awning.  The eye is drawn upwards:  evidence of its energetic use (tinctures of sweat and hair oil) and its enduring  longevity (withered sponge and shock-absorbing webs); its dome not a civilian crown , but rather a proud classical symbol of ‘military’ prowess crest, for crest it is;  its particular strength (steel-ridged) […]

Polish Sleepers

The first of a sequence of poems alluding to boyhood during World War II. The sight of recycled railway sleepers transports the speaker back to the lost domain of wartime childhood. Within this context, references to Poland and the positioning of other key-words in the narrative provide a potential  link with the period’s more chilling phenomena: wartime concentration camps. Once: a time when Heaney’s local railway-line, now closed, was active. Railway-sleepers in situ were a common sight, block-built criss-cross and four-squared with a characteristic smell: We … breathed pure creosote, a common preservative still applied to raw timber. Time has passed; the sleepers have proved to be ideal for the garden, laid and landscaped in a kerb/… half skirting, half […]

Anahorish 1944

In a newspaper interview Heaney revealed how, as a boy, he watched American troops marching by from ‘up a beech tree’. The momentous preparations for D-Day  brought an international force to Britain which was to launch an assault on the Normandy beaches and free Europe from nazi oppression. Unusually Heaney, who would have been a small boy at the time, uses a speaker working in the local abattoir and the poem is in quotation marks. Subsequent  loss of life on Normandy beaches endorses the ironic juxtaposition of butchered pigs and soldiers –  at the very moment when American troops arrived we were killing pigs/ sunlight and gutter-blood/ outside the slaughterhouse, the animals squealing as they were bled, The voice speaks […]

To Mick Joyce in Heaven

A sequence of 5 sonnets, set at a time when Heaney was five or six years of age, is addressed to the memory of Mick Joyce. Heaney resurrects a figure from the past, recalling him with great warmth, affection and good-humour. The man was ‘demobbed’ at the end of WW2 and, it is suggested, became part of the post-war reconstruction programme. Personal pronouns are those of a shared relationship: you, your, we, I, me. In a sequence that will regularly allude to life-and-death issues, the final couplet of all clarifies Heaney’s subtle choice of title: Mick Joyce now in memoriam is depicted at a moment when, on leave from his duties and very much alive, he was ‘in heaven’ in […]

The Aerodrome

Heaney  recounts  the story of a wartime visit to his local airfield. The visit becomes a parable to do with insecurity, temptation and resistance. The airfield is long since out of commission, first disused then re-developed : first … back to grass, then after that to warehouses and brickfields. Its iconic centre-piece (wartime grey control-tower) has retained its control status: rebuilt and glazed into a hard-edged CEO-style villa.  Post-war changes in attitude and style introduced a new lexis; here the ‘hard edge’ of uncompromising money-making opportunities. Toome aerodrome is a part of history; the poet transports his memory and his senses back to the smell of daisies and hot tar on a newly-surfaced cart-road and to a specific moment: Easter […]

Anything Can Happen

  Of the outrages that occurred increasingly regularly in the 5 years following Heaney’s previous published volume, it was the ‘strike’ of 9/11 that persuaded him to write Anything Can Happen. He adapts Horace’s Ode I, 34  drawing implicit attention to the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. This act had brought Heaney to a ‘terrified awareness ‘that ‘the tallest things can be brought low’ and demonstrated that absolutely nothing was beyond the bounds of possibility. Both poems introduce Jupiter from classical mythology; sovereign God of the Romans, omnipotent, identified with the sky, storms and lightning. In the Heaney version Jupiter will mostly wait for clouds to gather head/ Before he hurls the […]

Rilke: After the Fire

  Rilke – deemed Austrian, born in Prague  part of the German-speaking district of erstwhile Czechoslovak Prague , so  of insecure national identity – was at his most prolific between 1900 –1925. His watch-words are: ‘alienation’, ‘lyricism, ‘mysticism’, ‘spirituality’. Heaney show-cases a version of a Rilke poem from 1908. A man whose past has been destroyed overnight  is suddenly alienated from his environment. The poem is pervaded by uncertainty, unexpectedness and hostile forces that threaten the mental health of an anonymous individual. In common with Rilke’s early lyricism the poem starts with personification: startled early autumn morning hesitated taken aback by something unexpected shying at newness. Nature begins to take stock of a perceived gap in the landscape, an emptiness […]

Out of Shot

The poetic process in action: an item with poetic charge emerges on the periphery of a television sequence. The title is suggestive of things ‘seen’ by a poet which by-pass ordinary mortals. Cameras following news-pieces is also record the less obvious. What Heaney has spotted sets his creative spirit in motion. The sonnet links two sets of events involving shock and confusion: the first remembered from Irish history; the second in a contemporary newsreel from the war-stricken Middle-East. The speaker recalls the specific detail of an incident from the past close to Glanmore that provided poetic charge: the month, the time of day and the weather conditions (bell-clear Sunday). He relives the moment: his stance (elbows lodged strut-firm upon a […]

To George Seferis in the Underworld

  The epigraph is quoted from Roderick Beaton’s George Seferis, Waiting for the Angel. It sets off a number of lines of interest in Heaney: how a poet appears to observers, whether his thoughtfulnesses  and preoccupations are mistaken for absent-mindedness; how a poet retrieves information; the extraordinary associations that the ‘poet’ dreams up in response to objects (here Heaney responds to ‘spiky’ sharpness). One characteristic Heaney recognises he shares with Seferis is his reluctance to take political sides in public. The poem is addressed to Seferis. Heaney portrays Seferis standing in spiky asphodel which grows wild in Greece (the same immortal flower that grew in Elysium, the abode of the blessed after death in classical antiquity), a rightly appropriate setting […]

District and Circle

  A sequence of 5 sonnets bears the title Heaney chose for the collection as a volume, after long consideration of alternatives. The poems are based on his memories of early-days’ vacation work in London, tempered by subsequent terrorist attacks on London transport. Heaney weaves mythological images of the underworld into the corridors and levels of the London ‘tube’. Michael Schneider suggests that ‘unless you know he’s referring to the Edgeware Road station, where the District and Circle lines converge, site of 2005 terrorist bombs, you miss much of the resonance of a poem in which death is a ghostly presence’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 08, 2006 Heaney  recalled to DOD that he ‘removed 2 sonnets from the ‘Tollund Man’ sequence […]

Wordsworth’s Skates

  Heaney responds to an exhibit once worn by a celebrated Romantic poet in a piece about celebrity, professional respect and legacy. It offers insights into the poetic process. On a visit to Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage near Grasmere the British Lake District, Heaney latches onto a literal and metaphorical star in the window. His initial idea takes on poetic a poetic charge that will lift Wordsworth beyond the reach of gravity As he studies the exhibit he allows the external sounds he hears (Slate scrape. Bird or branch?) to act as  a stepping-stone to an ice-bound Lake District around 1800 and the sounds of sharp blades cutting into the smooth, frozen  Lakeland surface (the whet and scud of steel on […]

The Harrow-Pin

  In this first of three ‘workshop’ poems Heaney paints the character portrait of local blacksmith, Barney Devlin of ‘Midnight Anvil’, recalling his uncompromising finger-wagging insistence on high moral standards amongst the rural children who frequented his workshop … and we believed him. Barney is issuing the ‘old’ warning  that Santa Claus only visits good children – the naughty ones will get only an inedible vegetable (old kale stick) – his short-lived spoken reprimand (admonition) compares with the enduring  solidity of the harrow-pin he is producing, a symbol of ‘real’ chastisement if ever there was one: correction’s veriest unit.. The pin’s qualities are listed: blacksmith-produced, a head-banged spike with the sharpness of a tooth (forged fang); a pin resembling a […]

Poet to Blacksmith

  In search of perfection – Heaney offers his version of an 18th century Irish list of ‘instructions’ given by an agricultural labourer to his ‘spade-maker’ in the confidence that the latter can engineer the bespoke tool he requires to become a champion at what he does: a side-arm to take on the earth. The spade must meet the following criteria: fit-for-purpose (suitable for digging and grubbing), comfortable in his grip (right for the hand); when taking a break (pleasant to lean on); aesthetically pleasing (tastily finished); of flawless appearance (no trace of the hammer); with the necessary elastic qualities of purchase and spring that save it from snapping; perfectly engineered where wood meets metal: The shaft to be socketed […]

Midnight Anvil

Heaney is reminded of the last seconds of December 31st, 1999 when local blacksmith, Barney Devlin, already in his eighties, struck twelve hammer-blows on his anvil for the millennium. In an article Heaney described this moment as a ‘strike’ similar to the 9/11 ‘strike’ in that both ‘strikes, the latter a hostile act, the former celebratory, acted as ‘tuning-forks’ for poems. Heaney reveals he was not actually present in the smithy yet can celebrate the resonance of the moment: I can still hear it. Modern technology permitted Devlin’s nephew 8000 miles away in Canada to share the happening via the cellular phone held in a pose appropriate for a smithy high as a horse’s ear!  Heaney recalls a line of […]

Súgán

  Heaney describes an age-old process, its material and its product. A parallel is suggested: the composition of a poem is as complex and demanding of energy, skill and commitment as the practice being described. In Ireland súgán is a kind of straw rope with a variety of uses from farmyard twine to furniture seating. Heaney’s poem follows the traditional twining method. The poet himself, working on the family farm is fully engaged in the process. The jumble of soft raw material is set in a series of sibilants (the fluster of that soft supply) and the gentle dexterity required to unravel it velar plosives (coax () it from the ruck) and feed it into the twining machine. Heaney uses […]

Senior Infants

A short sequence in poetry and prose recalling characters from Primary schooldays (before the age of reason) … a poet and his contemporaries, once infants now of senior age, and the different life-styles they were exposed to. The Sally Rod  Heaney bumps into a Primary school class-mate in the street, larger than life, grown senior, jovial, affectionate. A particular memory floods back, exaggerated by time – of physical punishment suffered once upon a winter’s day (a reworked standard fairy-tale opening ‘Once upon a time…’ from  the lost domain of childhood). A primary school teacher Miss Walls, out of control  (lost her head) administering frenzied physical punishment (cut the legs off us) in retribution for no more than a laddish ‘crime’ […]

The Nod

A disturbing sonnet set in Heaney’s adolescence pursues the themes of suspicion and hidden threat, reflects on the implications of being ‘recognised’ when a community is unstable and requires an armed police reserve presence  … and asks who exactly one’s ‘neighbour’ is. A slight inclination of the head, ostensibly one of unspoken recognition, is not always what it seems. The poem recalls uncomfortable sectarian moments akin to the final piece of Senior Infants. Routine meat shopping for Sunday lunch (we would stand in line) with his father in a Saturday evening queue of folk with similar aims in mind. Young Heaney was struck by the vivid colours: red for the meat, white string and standard brown-paper ripped from a roll […]

The Clip

In a touching sonnet that reveals much about the poet’s own sensitive, observant and imaginative nature Heaney outlines a feature of rural Irish community life, describing his first barber shop situated in the tiny home of a villager (Harry Boyle’s one-room, one-chimney house) where Harry practises his trade and sleeps conducts his private life (with its settle bed). The villagers refer to the hair-cut by its colloquial title – ‘a clip’. Heaney’s memories of the experience are rich in sense data: what he could not see he could feel and hear (cold smooth creeping steel and snicky scissors); what he could see (the strong-armed chair) held him firmly in its grip. The protective cloth placed around his neck spurred his […]

Edward Thomas on the Lagans Road

Once upon a time, the ghost of an iconic WW1 poet made an appearance on a road familiar to the poet conjuring up the ghosts of other WW2 survivors. Heaney describes the place, the event and the supporting cast in some detail. Heaney provides a dramatic continuo sound effect of approaching footsteps … an incoming ‘presence’ as yet unseen: a step on the grass-crowned road, footsteps with purpose echoing the whip of daisy-heads on the toes of boots.  However the stage is not yet prepared for his entrance …  a man and woman in their lovers’ hide-away are engaged in passionate but amateur sexual foreplay (fully clothed, strong-arming each other); they hear, sense they are intruders  and are minded to […]

Found Prose

3 prose-poems celebrate places, people and routine events of school-aged boyhood. Freedom from the particular demands poetry imposes of its creator leaves us with a sense of Heaney-unplugged speaking from the heart. The Lagans Road Heaney walks the iconic road already featured in the Edward Thomas poem towards to a rite of passage –  his first day at Primary School – destined to open up a host of new experiences and sense data and set him on the road ultimately to successful independence. Heaney is an excellent landscape-painter in words, providing detail that both he and the attentive reader can envision: the physical road, the characteristically poorly maintained, infrequently used country road; the bog-side situation and its flora … in […]

The Lift

A touching, much admired poem, filled with a warm humanity for individuals and groups; the piece follows Heaney’s aunt Mary’s coffin on its final journey to the graveyard. Mary passed away in the mid 1970s. Paradoxically spring is showing signs of life at the very moment an old woman has died. Her funeral is well supported by the local community – her cortège filled the road. Heaney makes a link between close-knit rural Ulster communities of the period  and the ritual processions of rural Brittany (remote familiar  women and men in caps walking four abreast. In the midst of the Troubles the gathering attracts the attention of the forces of order seeking to enforce restrictions -The solemn proceedings are outrageously […]