Vitruviana

for Felim Egan Heaney composes a sequence featuring three static graphic art shapes: a two-dimensional Renaissance drawing that Heaney realizes he once once copied in three dimensions as a youngster at the seaside; a much earlier sacred mural revamped for the twentieth; finally a Dublin Bay ‘canvas’ capturing in words the painting of an abstract artist who lived and worked there and to whom the poem is dedicated. Old postcards of Portstewart reveal the natural deep pool in which boy-Heaney on vacation could immerse himself and did (waded in up to the chest), then found his floating balance (half-suspended) and adopted a Vitruvian pose: (legs wide apart … arms stretched sideways  buoyant to the fingertips), the sea level with his […]

To the Shade of Zbigniew Herbert

Heaney addresses the memory of a Polish poet he respected greatly for his ‘exemplary ethical and artistic integrity, his noble profile, solidarity with the victims of history and poetic and thereby political strength’; he became a bastion of resistance during turbulent periods of Polish occupation by the Russians. Active within the Polish Solidarity movement (one of those), of hyperborean giant status caught in the Polish ‘cold’ (from the back of the north wind), touched by creative talent (Apollo favoured), a poetic mouthpiece and spiritual strength when times were dark (the winter season), a popular (among your people) voice-in-waiting when his poetry was forbidden by the authorities (herald whenever he’d departed), when freedom of speech was repressed (the land was silent) […]

The Real Names

Heaney’s substantial ten-part sequence traces the twin development of his journey into Shakespeare and his journey into poetry. It ranges back and to in time and location. The ‘real names’ are the authentic individuals who were at school with Heaney and as members of St Columb’s Dramatic Society played the Shakespearean characters of annual school productions. The Shakespeare texts were set in stone, the lives of the young actors, including Heaney’s, anything but. In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of  Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the survivor’,  Helen Vendler offers her own insights into the poet’s use of sequences:  ‘Exploring the mystery of the self has been a steady concern in Heaney’s work, but while […]

The Loose Box

The title focuses on the particular compartment within the Mossbawn stable complex in which the animal was free to move about. In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. The Loose Box provides Heaney with the vehicle to grasp, explore and expand the bundles of associations that orbit his central focus. The sequence’s central motif is food … the fodder offered to the farm’s animals … the electric charge providing sustenance for the creative mind …  the single natural component of an underwhelming Christmas Nativity scene witnessed by child-Heaney … the sacrifices fed a monstrous […]

The Little Canticles of Asturias

Three snippets from a wider poetic travelogue recount stages along the roads of northern Spain that lead to Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral city and culmination of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim Way of St James. Heaney and his passengers are not pilgrims as such and Heaney only reaches Santiago de Compostela in imagination. Heaney’s canticles, traditionally hymns or chants, are composed as three short pieces. The first paints a real-life descent into a Dantesque hell; the second, the calm after the storm, focuses on the spiritual and emotional restitution of the soul; the third concentrates on bodily recovery before returning to the pilgrim theme. 1 Heaney presents an on-going (and then) chronicle at mid-point (in medias res). Driver […]

The Fragment

Heaney presents two fragments, the first drawn from his translation of Beowulf and the second from his own post- Belfast chronology; both Beowulf’s swim and Heaney’s move to the Irish Republic were judged reckless. Poet and warrior join forces to rebuff their critics. An envious courtier, Unferth, has challenged Beowulf’s honour-code by implying that the latter’s exposure to a reckless swimming contest does not make for heroism. In rebuffing Unferth’s comments Beowulf celebrated (sang) his survival after ‘seven days in the icy waves’, swimming and fighting monsters at sea that now lay dead on beaches and would no longer attack passing ships. For this early Christian the rising sun (‘Light … from the east) is proof of the Almighty (bright […]

The Clothes Shrine

In praise of women. Heaney composes a poem at once crackling with sexual electricity and diffused with spiritual light. Composed in a single sentence hyphenated to offer three distinctive angles Clothes Shrine harks back on the one hand to the sexuality of Heaney’s and Marie’s early-days’ relationship (he found her sensationally attractive, as he explained in Twice Shy of Death of a Naturalist of 1965) and on the other the shining example of an Irish goddess turned saint; the strengths and qualities embodied in the final quartet apply to both and (unstated) to other strong female influences in Heaney’s life – his own mother and her sister Mary. Heaney chatted to Daljit Nagra in a BBC interview of March 2001 […]

Sruth

in memory of Mary O Muirithe Poetic licence permits Heaney (who first attended Irish camp in his teens) to spend childhood camp time with Mary who was 4 years his senior. Mary and the breac-Gaeltacht are inextricably linked in his mind. She is dead and he wants to talk warmly to and about her – in this retrospective dramatization she is still very much alive. Mary will never leave the eternal present of the poem He hears Mary’s voice in the mountain cataract (sruth) that sang with the region’s blend of Irish and English (bilingual) – genuine, pure sound-water (truth) gushing (race … spilling) down from the iconic Donegal peak and landmark (Errigal), its flow a cascade (rush of its […]

Red, White and Blue

Revisiting moments from his and Marie’s past Red, White and Blue provides insights into the man Heaney has become. In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘exploring the mystery of the self has been a steady concern in Heaney’s work, but while the young poems came fresh to that mystery, the new poems come to it with layers of memory that both obscure it further and reveal it newly; the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. Each of the three poems bears a distinctive colour marking associated with wife Marie at specific moments in their history. I  Red The magnetic attraction […]

On His Work in the English Tongue

in memory of Ted Hughes (mentioned by name in the dedication alone) In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf Heaney paid tribute to the first millennium author of  ‘a work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece where the structuring of the tale is as elaborate as the beautiful contrivances of its language … which is today called Anglo-Saxon or Old English’. His use, in the title, of ‘tongue’ which is of a similar period might shed light on his anonymous third person pronoun and aim his poetic intention solely in the direction of the poet of Beowulf. However the poem’s dedication to friend and recently deceased Ted Hughes, a twentieth century English Poet Laureate of huge stature plus, […]

Electric Light

In his interview with Daljit Nagra in the March 2001 edition of ‘Fine Lines’ Heaney commented: The title comes from ‘an actual pinpointed moment’… aunts and mother out,  child left with his grandmother, for the first time away from home and becoming scared, bewildered “what ails you child?” … made more homeless by this language … the phrase ‘dwelt in memory’ over nearly 60 years ‘a little aperture a little chink into English English, into the other English … the high art English I learnt when I went to Shakespeare and to Chaucer’. Heaney’s earliest memories of his grandma McCann are pre-electricity – of the old candle-lit order (grease congealed), with its smutty residues (dark-streaked … wick­soot).  His abiding memory […]

Clonmany to Ahascragh

in memory of Rory Kavanagh Heaney dedicates this touching sequence to the deceased son of a long-standing friend. The family is very well known to Heaney but only mentioned by name via the dedication. The loss of a child is completely alien to the poet. The title’s place names are indicative both of Rory’s parental origins and of the trek the couple made to share family with their individual families. The tears of Rory’s family and friends including the poet’s have ground to a halt (the rest of us have no weeping left). Reading and re-reading Heaney’s poem will provide a fitting requiem (do it for you) – peat bog trees that weep (willows … on Leitrim Moss), tears visible […]

Afterthoughts

  Heaney an extraordinary man in ordinary clothing Heaney the cordon-bleu cook Heaney the agent of change Heaney the orchestral composer Heaney the word painter Heaney the meticulous craftsman (including phonetic information) Thumbnails of poems (in alphabetical order) Stylistic devices   an extraordinary man in ordinary clothes Poets are a breed apart!  Unlike ordinary mortals such as you and I their consciousness is constantly tuned into things that give off a poetic charge and their vocation compels them to pounce on such sudden, involuntary moments before they fade away. Poets are constantly on the qui-vive; they have a way of recording these unpredictable, involuntary instances – poets are never far away from composition mode which transforms  electrical impulse into verse; […]

Foreword

Seeing Things published by Faber & Faber in 2001 is Seamus Heaney’s tenth collection. He is in his early sixties. The book demonstrates the erudition and vitality of his earlier poems and adds a ‘literary’ strand and an elegiac strand that break the Heaney mould. Electric Light and subsequent collections over more than half a century confirm Heaney’s place at the very top of the premier league of 20th century poets writing in English and provide a hugely rich legacy and archive following the poet’s relatively sudden untimely death in August 2013 at the age of 74. The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in Electric Light. It must be appreciated that Heaney […]

Audenesque

in memory of Joseph Brodsky Heaney pens a last message of respect, admiration and affection for a deceased friend and fellow Nobel Laureate whose ‘exhilarating’ company he had much enjoyed. He summed up his feelings in a posthumous tribute published in the New York Times: I first met him passing through London in 1972 on the second leg of his journey from dissidence in Russia to exile in the United States; he was a verifying presence. His mixture of brilliance and sweetness, of the highest standards and the most refreshing common sense, never failed to be both fortifying and endearing. Every encounter with him constituted a renewal of belief in the possibilities of poetry. In ‘Finders Keepers Heaney said that […]

Arion

from the Russian of Alexander Pushkin Read ‘Arion’, think ‘Heaney’ suggests Helen Vendler In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’: ‘Heaney’s poetry begins, now, to exhibit many elegies both for personal friends and for poets who have been important to him … Marking their disappearance, Heaney, the survivor, adapts a Pushkin’s poem in which Arion (saved from shipwreck by a dolphin) speaks a postlude’. Heaney presents his own version of the Russian poem. All is proceeding smoothly – a vessel riding high, every crewman on board fully occupied (all hard at it), some up aloft adjusting for greater speed (up tightening sail), others sweating at the oars (the […]

At Toomebridge

Heaney recounts the exhilaration he experiences on his return to the point where the Lower Bann river exits Lough Neagh and continues its journey northwards to the sea. Interviewed by Daljit Nagra in March 2001 under the heading ‘Fine Lines’, Heaney defined Toomebridge as ‘a radiant place with the’ radiant shine’ of first recall – a ‘terrific entrancement for me’ seen from the bridge as I was on the bus – an appropriate poem with which to start the collection; a miniature version of the collection as a whole ‘the poem is doing what the book is about … it pays attention, gives full acknowledgement to the usual, the data, what happens … it allows the shine of your own […]

The Sounds of Rain

                                                                 in memoriam Richard Ellmann Richard David Ellmann: prominent American literary critic;  biographer of the Irish writers James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats. Ellman died in Oxford in 1987. Each panel of the triptych is framed within the sound of rain. Its centre-piece II showcases a fellow Nobel laureate and an academic from Harvard days … the poet reflects on comments they made. The side panels are rain-soaked: in I, as the poet emerges from sleep (then came to), Heaney is visited by mourning voices; in III, […]

Navigating the ‘Station Island’ Collection

Contents Foreword followed by: Main Sources; the Structure of Station Island; biographical ‘events’ between 1976-1984; the collection and its moment; Heaney’s ‘book of changes’; ‘hampering stuff’; Catholic beginnings; loss of faith; breaking loose; the political dimension; ‘Troubles’ timeline; poetry and politics: retaining a neutral voice; reconciling the clash between politics and poetry; the redemptive power of Art; Irishness;   the Poems individual commentaries with footnotes and reflections on style and structure Part 1: the stirrings of change; The Underground La Toilette Sloe Gin Away from it All Chekhov on Sakhalin Sandstone Keepsake Shelf Life A Migration Last Look Remembering Malibu Making Strange The Birthplace Changes An Ulster Twilight A Bat on the Road A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann A […]

Foreword

  Station Island, published by Faber and Faber in 1984, is Seamus Heaney’s seventh collection. Heaney is in his mid-forties. The totality of his collections over more than half a century since Death of a Naturalist (1966) have confirmed his place at the very top of the premier league of poets writing in English. The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in Station Island. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader; there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. Thanks to the depth of Heaney’s knowledge, scholarship and the sincerity of his personal feelings, his poetry is rich in […]

The Underground

Heaney dramatises an incident from his honeymoon, dissolving a panicky rush into a version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Underground and Underworld merge in a fusion of reality and nightmare. A London Underground tunnel is the unifying factor: first a memory played out (then),the intimate recollection of a mad rush to get to a Promenade concert at the Albert Hall; the second and third providing (now) imagined associations: first a character from German folklore lost in a dark forest then the scene of an Underworld trap into which a figure from classical mythology fell and lost his wife as a result. We follow two figures in a vaulted passageway leading to and from the Tube; the ‘she’ figure […]

La Toilette

The early-morning embrace of a loved one recalls unwelcome memories of Heaney’s Catholic training. The die is cast, however: Marie’s is Heaney’s new sacred body. Initial sensual contact focuses on the nightwear and body of a woman engaged at her ‘toilette’. The speaker’s voice reveals the excitement generated by the way she presents herself: bathrobe/ ungirdled, first coldness of the underbreast . At this moment of physical pleasure he cannot prevent the accessories of Catholic worship from interrupting the intimacy he is enjoying, touch is like a ciborium in the palm. He shakes his head at the Catholic message that they no longer believe in (Remember?); it was coldly dismissive of the physical closeness, allure and sexuality he is now […]

Sloe Gin

  Heaney proposes a lyrical toast to a drink made from sloe berries that drip with taste and sensation and to the woman who produces sloe gin. The poem salutes the creation of an enjoyable tipple. The process is defined as a late autumn activity performed as the clear weather of juniper/ darkened into winter. The tipple-maker simply added alcoholic sustenance to the berries: fed gin to sloes. The speaker’s curiosity that led to him opening the sealed jar prematurely sent its bouquet (the tart stillness of a bush) rising through the pantry where it lay marinating. Sampling brought pleasure to taste and sight: the sharpness of its cutting edge and its cosmic twinkle that flamed/ like Betelgeuse. The chink […]

Away from it All

The poem should be read in the context of the ‘Troubles’ in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of the H-Blocks at Long Kesh and of hunger strikers. Heaney, a poet in the public eye, acknowledges that he has often been absent from Ulster as events unfolded; he has sympathy for ’causes’, but is unsure what stance he ought to adopt. The speaker and his anonymous friend are enjoying a convivial session in a seafood restaurant (let us suggest, to coincide with Heaney’s first meeting with Czeslaw Milosz, that the setting is somewhere on the Californian coast); others are almost certainly present. The poem explores the tensions writers share as regards their creativity, their historical moment, their take […]

Chekhov on Sakhalin

These instances from a political pilgrimage are dedicated to fellow Ulster man of Letters Derek Mahon (to whom Heaney’s Seeing Things collection is dedicated); amongst their numerous contacts Heaney and Mahon shared, in 1977, an Arts Council tour entitled In Their Element; The poem should be read in the context of the Troubles in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of H-Blocks at Long Kesh and hunger strikers. Heaney, a poet in the public eye, deplores repressive policies and has sympathy for causes; here he explores the reactions of the Russian author and physician Anton Chekhov, a fellow author faced with similar political circumstances, one who demonstrated the courage of his convictions but who faltered at the final […]