Singing School

A sequence of 6 poems grouped under a title borrowed from WB Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium: ‘Nor is there singing school but studying/ Monuments of its own magnificence’. The 2 epigraphs compare contrasting roots: the first is from Wordsworth, reflecting on his gentle apolitical, ‘English’, Church-of England childhood; the second from WB Yeats reflecting much more aggressively his ‘politicised’ Irish Protestant childhood; The sequence of 6 poems explores some of the conditioning cultural circumstances of SH’s own biography (NC79); 1 The Ministry of Fear 2 A Constable Calls 3 Orange Drums 4 Summer 1969 5 Fosterage 6 Exposure

1 The Ministry of Fear

dedicated to Seamus Deane. The initial interjection Well announces that Heaney is poised to speak of events from his personal biography: his important places is borrowed from Patrick Kavanagh’s Epic of 1938:important places, times/ When great events were decided. His first ‘monument’ (in the Yeatsian sense) is St Columb’s College in Derry (where billeted as a boarder Heaney lived out his secondary education), situated on its lonely scarp (he transfers the epithet: he was the lonely one!) overlooking the Bogside where Seamus Deane was born. For a first-year secondary-schoolboy from the provinces it provided a vision of new worlds and the poet clearly recalls one landmark: the floodlit dogtrack and the raucous cries of its race-night punters: the inflamed throat […]

2 A Constable Calls

The poem is a tour de force, a simple and hugely atmospheric monument amongst poems that characterize the life of minority Catholics in a dominantly Protestant-ruled province called Northern Ireland and Paddy Heaney’s ultimate refusal to kow-tow with authority. Heaney provides the ingredients of a compelling psychological drama: an atmosphere of threat; an attentive youngster; an interrogation; a father’s lie; a moral dilemma that tests the innocence of the listening child; the threat receding. The ‘poet-film-director’ employs all the zooms, pans and slow-motions of cinematic technique. The boy’s eye is the camera, his ear records the sounds. The first two stanzas follow the child’s curiosity: he examines an anonymous visitor’s bicycle in some detail; (like its rider) it is a […]

3 Orange Drums

Heaney composes the brash cartoon/poster image of a figure prominent in a Protestant Unionist parade. He allows his dislike of the event and what it stands for to leak out. Its central figure is an overpowering caricature: a drummer whose size and posture are complemented by the bulk and weight of his drum. The vocabulary of volume and weight makes him larger-than-life: balloons…belly … weighs … buckles; the sound he produces is bullying to the ear: thunder/ Grossly. He cuts a paradoxical figure his height extended by his heavy instrument: raised up by what he buckles under. His drumstick is a seasoned rod (‘seasoned’ both in the sense of ‘matured’ and used during the marching season). It indicates the pretext […]

4 Summer 1969

Heaney was in Spain when the Ulster riots were happening. His personal discomfort paled into insignificance when compared with the events experienced by the Catholic community under fire in the Falls Road area of Belfast: I was suffering/ Only the bullying sun of Madrid. He was spending part of each day immersed in his research, perspiring in the casserole heat, unable to escape the resultant stinks from the fishmarket/ … like the reek off a flaxdam. Evening would bring gentler sense data: gules of wine/ A sense of children …/ Old women in black shawls near open windows; a feeling of respite above all; The air a canyon rivering in Spanish’ Discussions with visiting friends are conducted on the way […]

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 […]

6 Exposure

In conversation with Henri Cole as published in The Paris review no 75, Heaney spoke about his move to Wicklow in 1972: ‘… leaving the north didn’t break my heart. The solitude was salubrious. Anxiety, after all, can coexist with determination. The anxiety in a poem like “Exposure” is about whether the work that comes out of this move is going to be in any way adequate. The poem is asking itself, Is there enough here to hold the line against the atrocious thing that is happening up there? And the poet is saying, What am I doing but striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?’ … I suppose the corollary of being battened […]