The poetic process is illustrated: a poem ‘comes on’ during a leisure activity.
The title of the sonnet is suggestive of things ‘seen’ by the poet that by-pass ordinary mortals. Cameras following news-pieces also record what is less immediate or obvious. This sort of fringe detail is what the poet spots; it sets his creative spirit in motion.
The poem provides a stepping-stone between two sets of events: the first to be remembered from Irish history; the second brought on by current reports from the war-stricken Middle-East.
The speaker recalls the context in which an incident took on poetic charge: outdoors; a time of year; the weather conditions; bell-clear Sunday. He recalls himself with elbows lodged strut-firm upon a gate and remembers the pretext for being there: inspecting livestock (first of a string of ing participles suggestive of sequential thoughts).
The development of language distracts him, catching gleams of the distant Viking vik Of Wicklow Bay, as he dips into etymology based on vik (an OE word for ‘camp’).
Historical associations are born: thinking associated with a turbulent period of Irish history featuring 9th century Viking attacks on monasteries, seats of learning in their time with their scriptorium, where monk/scribes copied and decorated documents for posterity and without whose work written records would be lost.
He can sense the contemporaneous fear of the inhabitants (Norse raids, night dreads) recalling a written account, that ‘fierce raiders’ poem, with its welcome storms at sea that lessened the threat of attack.
The sonnet’s volta occurs after 8 and a half lines with its jolting return to the screen he is watching (thinking shock) with its constant flow of tailored media information, either wholly unexpected so Out of the blue or escaping censorship’s news- blackout.
Heaney focuses not on the central news footage; what he has ‘seen’ is a shell-shocked donkey, released from its cart with its staggered walk, the initial bearer and subsequent victim of violence between Middle-Eastern sectarian/tribal factions: Loosed from a cart that had loosed five mortar shells/ In the bazaar district. It is the donkey which the poet’s eye follows out of shot: a stray Lost to its owner; mentally confused, lost for its sunlit hills. Heaney’s use of prepositions here makes unravelling a little more elusive.
- Sonnet in three main sections: observing, reflecting, watching; lines based around 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- 10 of the 14 lines are enjambed and other punctuation is in mid-line;
- sentences in which main verbs are replaced by participles;
- the section preceding the 1st comma is a weave of [n] November morning sunshine/ unseasonably; [ɒ] on/ lodged/ top [e] November/ bell/ elbows [i:] clear/ unseasonably (later gleams);
- [ai] of sunshine is picked up in livestock/ Viking/ night/ Irish alongside [ɪ] inspecting/ distant/ vik/ Wicklow/ thinking scriptorium; [ei] gate is echoed later in raids;
- assonant so no; alliterative blue/ blackout [ai] re-emerges: night/ five; repeated loosed/ loosed; [ɑː] cart/ bazaar/ wandering; final cluster of [ɒ] shot/ lost/ lost;
- reference to blue/ blackout also implies the bruising when someone is beaten ‘black and blue’;
- If the Heaney of North implied that guilt lay everywhere, the Heaney of District and Circle says that innocence and helplessness are everywhere too. The current “war on terror” informs a smart translation from Horace and a sketch about “a donkey on the TV news last night—/ Loosed from a cart that had loosed five mortar shells/ In the bazaar district, wandering out of sight,” away from the conflict, like Balaam’s ass in reverse. Stephen Burt reviews District and Circle by Seamus Heaney as part of the Christopher Tower poetry competition 2006
- Sanity, though, is not the same as immunity. The matter is pursued in “Out of Shot”, where a donkey-cart mortar improvised by Iraqi insurgents visits itself on a mind peaceably contemplating livestock in an Irish field, which in turn implicitly recalls the IRA’s back-of-a-van mortar attack on 10 Downing Street in 1991. ‘”Out of Shot” proffers itself as a sketch, a note, its method recalling Ted Hughes’s Moortown poems. When a poet as fluent and fastidious as Heaney denudes a poem of a main verb, it suggests unstable materials, resistant to settled interpretation. Sean O’Brien Friday, 7 April 2006