Known World

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.

In this dramatic travelogue of May 1998 Heaney describes what he met ‘on tour’ in countries from the former Yugoslavian bloc. The responses generated range from the sheer joy of mixing with fellow poets at Struga to  the troubling evidence of ethnic cleansing, from the beauty of the Balkan surroundings to the power of the Eastern Church. You could take Heaney out of Ireland but you cannot take Ireland out of Heaney … he has lived alongside these issues at home.

His Balkan adventure over Heaney reverts seamlessly to his western European ways.


To mix with new faces in Struga, some of them familiar to him others not, clearly suited Heaney well – the shared bonhomie, the discovery of new voices, accents and idiosyncrasies faithfully observed – his head is bursting with memories of this first stage in his wide-ranging trip.

Heaney was being transported over mountainous terrain at break-neck speed in a taxi; its Macedonian driver’s nerve (‘Nema problema!) at odds with the stridency of his voice, the squeal of tyres (screech) and his white-knuckle steering (every unfenced corner on the pass).

Struga Poetry Festival’s welcome-party was equally stridently over-the-top (‘Beria! Beria! Beria!’ – a ritual of vodka drinking (smashed a vodka glass), unrelenting (filled another) – and setting the alcoholic tone for Struga ‘78when we hardly ever sobered.

Heaney rubbed shoulders with a guest-list of poetry gods and demi-gods: the award-winner a Spaniard (Rafael Alberti  … ‘honouree’), a Finn (Caj [rhymes with ‘high’] Westerburg) oozing Shakesperean tragedy (a Finnish Hamlet), and perspiration (sweated ‘on principle’), dressed in black corduroy that Heaney’s northern tweed-wearer’s contrariness somehow disapproved of.

Next a German, Hans Magnus Enzensberger – not quite as people anticipated (unexpected), dapper (sharp in panama hat), immaculately tailored (pressed-to-a-T cream linen suit) but not sufficiently overstated to make him a figure of fun (he gets away with it).

Finally an enigmatic Dane who claimed he could predict a future based on experimental ideas (soothsaying … of the avant-garde) and who showed an Intense interest in eastern-style architectural features (squinting up at a squinch), his eyes as limpid as the water of a local beauty spot (coral floor of Lake Ohrid).

The Dane’s bizarre command of English and odd interpretation of Heaney’s work found a place in the poet’s notebook (‘Is this not you, these mosaics and madonnas?  You are a south. Your bogs were summer bogs’).

  • Macedonia: landlocked republic formerly the southernmost province of Yugoslavia (dissolved in 1992), with population 2.1 million; capital, Skopje
  • screech: sound strident (speech or tyre)
  • unfenced: without safety barriers;
  • pass: route over mountains permitting traffic, col;
  • Vladimir Chupeski: unidentified character- attendee, organiser, group leader or whatever;
  • sober up: become less intoxicated;
  • Struga: international poetryfestival held annually in Struga Macedonia. During the several decades of its existence, the Festival awards its prestigious Golden Wreath to one of the invitees all of them notable figures in the international poetry world; Heaney first attended these Struga Poetry Evenings in 1978 and received the wreath in 2001
  • Rafael Alberti: Spanish poet (1902-99), member of the Generation of ’27; considered one of the greatest literary figures of the so-called Silver Age of Spanish Literature, and winner numerous prizes and awards. After the Spanish Civil War, he went into exile because of his Marxist beliefs. 
  • honouree: recipient of the Struga Golden Wreath;
  • Caj Westerburg: Finnish poet and translator (b. 1946 in Porvoo); recipient of the Eino Leino Prize in 1995, Finnish State Prize for Translation in 1984 and State Prize for Literature twice, in 1970 and 1986.
  • corduroy: thick, ribbed cotton material
  • sweat: be damp with perspiration; also work hard at something;
  • on principle: by taking a particular line
  • tweed: rough-surfaced woollen material;
  • contrary: inclined to disagree or be counter-suggestive;
  • Hans Magnus Enzensberger: German author, poet, translator and editor (b. 1929) known for the sarcastic, ironic tone in many of his poems which also feature themes of civil unrest over economic and class based issues
  • unexpected: unanticipated (as of arrival) or just different, something else;
  • sharp: trendy, dapper;
  • panama hat: wide-brimmed hat made of palm-tree like leaves
  • press: iron flat with a damp towel;
  • to a T: until just right, to perfection;
  • get away with it: escape teasing comment;
  • soothsay: forecast future events;
  • avant-garde: working with new/ experimental ideas;
  • squint: examine through narrowed eyes;
  • squinch: architectural feature that reconciles square spaces with domes, pendentive;
  • coral:
  • Lake Ohrid: extending across the mountainous border between south-western Macedonia and eastern Albania; one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes, preserving a unique aquatic ecosystem that is of worldwide importance, with more than 200 endemic species
  • mosaic: reef of hard, stony living substances;
  • madonna: representation of the Virgin Mary;
  • 6 verses of varying length in ten sentences; full and half-line format, unrhymed;
  • line length centred around 10 syllables;
  • local language colour and local attractions;
  • varied list of Struga attendees with shared interest, noted less for their poetry than their varied turn-out;
  • alliterative effects in first verse: nasal [m] ‘nema problema… Macedonian’; sibilant [s]’screeched,…screeched…unfenced…pass…accelerated’, carried into V2;
  • assonant effects: ‘those…sobered…poetry’/’Rafael…Caj(Kai)’/’sharp…panama…garde’;
  • internal echo: ‘clear…me were’; ’squinting…squinch’;
  • alliteration in final lines: ’mosaics and madonnas…summer                   


Heaney’s tour has taken him 400 miles north of Struga into Serbia, to Belgrade where he notes contrasts between his ‘known’ Irish world and Serbian street life, his old-in-new (my west-in-east).

On the one hand despondent small-town Irish Belmullet (huckster shops and small shop windows) … its whiff of stale food (unfresh bread) and canned provisions (tinned peas) … its astute-looking old folk (elders) , widows in black shawls, upstanding (straight walk), alert to the slightest change (the weather eye), devout (the beads).

On the other hand big-city Belgrade from outside Heaney’s known world … ethnically distinctive and largely male  (men in fezes)  … the familiar smell, taste and texture of coffee back home replaced by a dense, flavoursome alternative (short and sweetening mud-slide).

  • Belgrade: capital of Serbia; population 1.4 million;
  • Belmullet: small Gaeltacht town of 1000 people in Ireland’s Co. Mayo;
  • melancholy: a pensive sadness not always with identifiable cause;
  • huckster: person selling small items door to door or in the street;
  • elder: senior figure in a church, social group or tribe;
  • shawl: fabric worn over a woman’s shoulders;
  • keep a weather eye on: watch closely to discern any changes;
  • beads: small stones that make up a rosary;
  • fez: men’s flat topped cylindrical headgear typical of eastern Europe, the Ottoman empire and north Africa
  • cardinal points: the 4 main directions on a compass;
  • flypaper: sticky, poisonous strip hung to catch and kill flies
  • honey: yellowish brown fluid made by bees
  • death-trap: life threatening circumstance;
  • barley-sugar: amber-coloured sweet of boiled sugar, traditionally shaped as a twisted stick
  • glut: excessive abundance;
  • loathing: disgust, intense dislike;


  • quintet + a couplet in 5 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables
  • verse 1 and assonant echoes: ‘east…peas, streets…beads’/ ‘shawls…walk’;
  • limited alliteration in V2: ‘men…fezes’’
  • quotation marks imply a borrowing from elsewhere;


Something has rattled Heaney; he is back home in his teens (at the still centre of the cardinal points); he is seeing the  flypaper in the family kitchen, posted deliberately to lure the nasty fly population (honey-strip) to its destruction (death-trap) using sweetness (barley-sugar twist) to be rid of the unhealthy invaders (glut and loathing).

In Heaney’s Irish foretime house appliances were standard (iron stove) and communities lived harmoniously side by side (kin groups still in place); devout folk a-plenty went to church in formal Sunday best (blackening length and breadth of summer roads)… that things deteriorated remains unsaid …

What he witnessed in Serbia gave off bad vibes: ethnic displacement on a massive scale: refugees fleeing for their lives: in large numbers (loaded), by whatever wheeled means (tractor mudguards farm carts trailers, ruck-shifters, box-barrows, prams) and whatever their state of health (on sticks, on crutches, on each other’s shoulders) – a hellish serpentine flow (like a syrup of Styx).

The Balkan world has been equally out of joint, the world  collapsing from its cosmic orbit (old gold world-chain) into an upheaval recorded by global media (the cloud-boil of a camera lens).

Heaney’s compassion and despair are evident: whatever happened to the Garden of Eden that life once seemed to promise (summer, shade and coolness … an open door at sunlight) … what became of innocence (paradise lost) … … were all those promises empty  (what I was taught)?

  • stove: device that cooks or heats using fuel or electricity;
  • kin: family, relations, tribe;
  • congregation: assembly, crowd; applying particularly to church gathering;
  • blacken: add a dominant colour to the scene
  • refugee: person fleeing to avoid persecution, war or natural disaster;
  • mudguard: metal strip protecting vehicle and user from water and dirt thrown up;
  • ruck-shifter: flat trailer for hauling hay ricks to the stack-yard (Irish word);
  • box-barrow: wheeled handcart, wheelbarrow
  • pram: wheeled baby- carriage;
  • crutch: armpit support for lame person;
  • coil: curling, twisting line;
  • syrup: thick, sweet liquid produced from sugar;
  • Styx: in Greek mythology one of the nine rivers in the underworld, over which Charon ferried the souls of the dead;
  • world-chain: way of imagining the earth suspended in the universe;
  • boil: describing a state of energetic activity
  • paradise lost: indirect allusion to Milton’s account of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience (Original Sin) and Man’s expulsion by God from the Garden of Eden;


  • 3 verses of unequal length linked by half lines; 3 complete sentences followed by two questions;
  • line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • the balance of punctuation, from an enumeration by commas to the enjambed description of the earth’s collapse offers variety of narrative flow to spoken delivery;
  • contrast between the vocabulary of displacement and its wider significance (classical and extra-terrestrial);
  • Heaney weaves in alliterative (‘still centre…strip…sugar…twist/ syrup…Styx’) and assonant effects (‘place…congregations’/’farm carts’/’shoulders…old gold’/’made…shade…gazing’);
  • mythological and biblical allusions: ‘Styx’, ‘paradise lost’;
  • seismic ‘cloud-boil’;


The depressing moments of the tour generated echoes of social breakdown in Northern Ireland (old sense of a tragedy going on). Heaney laments history’s unlearned lessons (uncomprehended), knows just how close disintegration is to everyday normality (at the very edge of the usual) and his inability to escape the memory (it never left me once).

Sight of Hygo Simberg’s allegory of Finland) depicting God’s place in 1930s’ Finnish Socialist history would have brought Heaney a better understanding of the Finnish Hamlet at Struga (for Caj’s sake)

In the foreground transported by two youths a religious icon in distress (a wounded angel carried by two farm youngsters across an open field). The middle ground is empty of political insinuation (marshland, estuary light) but Heaney’s background adds an industrial landscape (farther shore with factory chimneys) reminiscent of Finland’s socialist thirties and invoking deep-seated Finnish distress (the shale and slag and sloblands of great hurt).

The central spiritual icon (first communion angel with big white wings) is a victim of conflict (white bandage round her brow); the wilting snowdrops she bears (white flowers in hand) seem to offer no hope.

The angel cannot lie comfortably – her emergency transport has no bed-canvas (a makeshift stretcher). The youngsters who transport her are unsophisticated (manchild) and shiver in garments (round soft hat … bumfreezer) and hand-me-downs (his father’s wellingtons).

Heaney has no difficulty in recognizing allegory, but stops short (who’s  to know) of offering a definitive view of the painter’s intent via facial expression (sullen? resigned? angry? anguished?) or whether, indeed, he should read into it sorrow rightly, or at all.

  • uncomprehended: not yet realised;
  • usual: customary, routine;
  • Hygo Simberg 1873-1917: Finnish symbolist painter; sensitive, compassionate, depressive – painted the so-called ‘Wounded Angel’ of St John’s Church at Tampere, Finland, later used as the cover design for Paul Durcan’s collection ‘Daddy, Daddy (1990);
  • The Wounded Angel, 1902: two boys carry a stretcher, bearing an angel dressed in white. The angel’s wing has been wounded and her eyes are covered with a bandage. The painting does not tell us what has happened. One of the most beloved works in Finnish art speaks to us in many ways – there are as many interpretations as there are viewers. Perhaps this is how Hugo Simberg meant it to be. When he first displayed the work in the annual exhibition of the Finnish Art Society, there was simply a dash where there should have been a title. This was the artist’s way of saying that no single, correct interpretation exists. Each viewer creates the meaning of the work for him/herself,
  • allegory: a piece of work that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, say, of apolitical or moral nature
  • estuary: a large river’s tidal mouth;
  • socialist thirties: Finnish politics became complicated after its Declaration of Independence and establishment of a parliamentary democracy in December 1917, its regionalism and 1930s’ purges and its its subsequent relationship with Soviet Russia;
  • shale: soft, fine sedimentary rock deposit easily consolidated as mud or clay;
  • slag: stony waste matter that has been subjected to intense heat (factory or volcano);
  • slobland: flat polder land in Ireland (‘Wexford Sloblands’), drained or reclaimed flat land at or below water level;
  • hurt: pain, distress;
  • first communion: special occasion especially in the Roman Catholic Church when a 7 or 8 year-old receives first Eucharist
  • bandage: cloth that binds a wound;
  • makeshift: improvised, not the real thing;
  • bumfreezer: (slang); short jacket worn by men that does not protect the buttocks from cold winds
  • wellingtons: rubber boots;
  • read: interpret:
  • sorrow: feeling of deep distress;
  • discussing politics in poetry (and perhaps by extension in other creative works) with Daljit Nagra in BBC’s ‘Fine Lines’ of March 2001 Heaney stated: ‘I myself wrote out of the literal territory I grew up in and my books were full of images of the actual, you know’; ‘there was always in the poetry that voltage, that latent politics. Whilst he declined a link between himself and identifiable political movements ‘is not to say that I wasn’t absolutely sure that the poems themselves had political meaning and that they should have …
  • Heaney added: ‘the reader’s memory (eye) and consciousness is alone (with what he is reading or observing) … meaning and energy and cultural forces bred in the fermentation of that’.  He further suggested you interfere with the fermentation by saying too much: ‘ blathering about it’


  • couplet, sextet and septet in 4 sentences including 2 questions; variable line length 9 – 12 syllables; unrhymed;
  • initial couplet referring back has double assonant effect : [i] ‘pity…didn’t…Simberg…Finland’ and, rhyming with sigh ‘Caj…Hygo’;
  • verse 2 assonance ( ‘wounded…two…estuary’/’first…hurt…thirties’/’marsh…farther’)and alliteration using sibilant [s](‘socialist…shale…slag…sloblands’);
  • verse 3 – alliterative nasals’manchild…number…manchild…bumfreezer; assonant ‘round…brow…flower’/ ‘place…makeshift’/ ‘between…freezer…read’’; enjambed lines deliver piture appreciation;


Heaney’s sense of social breakdown orbiting ‘the very edge of the usual’ returns: the image of an abandoned Serbian home (open door) once lived in (worn saddle …  granite of the doorstep slab) conjures up an Old Testament identification drama (see note) … enter another angel, not Simberg’s distressed icon (this one in good shape – fit as ever) drawing ominous attention to each house with a doorstep daubed ‘Serb house’.

  • jamb: side frame of a doorway;
  • saddle: dip between two higher points
  • granite: very hard igneous rock;
  • angel: possible Old Testament reference (Exodus 12) in which the marking of Israelite doors differentiated them from the Egyptians so that when the Angel of Death passed over it recognized the blood marks on doors and moved on; shades also, perhaps of 1930s’ Nazi anti-Jewish daubs on doors and shop windows;
  • fit: in sound condition;
  • daub: smear;


  • a single quartet in 2 sentences; line-count of 10 syllables, extended to introduce the angel; unrhymed;
  • assonant weave: ‘door…worn…daub’/’jambs…saddle…and…granite…slab’;
  • the ‘ow’ of ‘house’ like a stab of pain;


The meld of fact and fiction in a poem (How does the real get into the made-up?) is a mystery to Heaney himself (ask me an easier one).

What he can remember for sure is a missed poetry-reading (our taxi-man, for all his speed, was late) in an incongruous venue (cement factory in the mountains) and, instead of culture, a boozy midday reception (liquid lunch) with left-wing bosses (comrade managers), a nap to sleep it off (siesta) and predictable after-effects (woozy wake-ups just before sunset).

His note-book recalls the arduous aftermath: a massive gathering (field full of folk) … beasts of burden (packhorses with panniers) … a challenging hilltop destination (uphill push of families) … an continuous procession of devotees (unending pilgrim stream) … a double celebration, in part to do with labour solidarity (workers’ day in memory of General Strike) in part a spiritual devotion (Greek Orthodox Madonna’s Day).

The track barely deserved to be called ‘road’ (dry water course, rattling stones), the travellers were downcast (subdued by the murmuring crowd).

A mystical figure (water-blesser) stood out, not part of the clerical team (on a rock apart ), ascetic (EI Greco-gaunt), hermit-like (cinctured) who, though dismissed as a charlatan by the local guide (‘Magician,’ said Vladimir) as he promoted himself (waving his cross), earned a response from the pilgrims (tins and jampotfuls held up).

Heaney was struck by religious parallels and variants: eastern orthodox imagery (icon being carried), shared symbols of prayer (candles lit), decorative sights with local fragrances (flowers and sweet basil in abundance) …clearly an act of eastern worship (some kind of mass) within the sanctuary (behind the iconostasis), incense carrying the prayers of the faithful heavenwards (censer swung and carried through the crowd).

For Heaney this Catholic déjà-vu (I had been there, I knew this) left him with the same old questions as to whether religion actually changed anything (haunted by it as by an unread dream).

After, and only after, the final money-raising event (the sale of holy objects) did the exhausted pilgrims break their fast with very simple fare (a taste of their bread and olives).

  • real: factual;
  • made-up: fictitious;
  • meant: supposed;
  • cement: grey, powdery substance which, mixed with water, produces building mortar;
  • liquid lunch: lunch-break composed entirely of alcoholic beverages, and no food
  • comrade: fellow worker, soldier member of a socialist or communist organisation;
  • woozy: unsteady with drink;
  • on the move: in transit, in motion, making progress;
  • packhorse: beast of burden;
  • panniers: a pair of baskets fitted to either side of an animal;
  • general strike: work stoppage involving workers from all of/ most industries
  • Greek Orthodox: Christian churches originating in the Greek-speaking Church of the Byzantine Empire, not accepting the authority of the Pope of Rome, and using elaborate and archaic forms of service; they include the national Churches of Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia.
  • Madonna’s Day: Churches and monasteries dedicated to the Virgin Mary celebrate on August 15th, the day of Her Assumption, celebrated not as a day of mourning for her loss, but a celebration of joy for the union of the mother with her beloved son, the blossoming of nature, the flood of emotions, and the return of people to their native land;
  • water course: channel along which a stream flows/ would flow;
  • rattle: clatter;
  • subdued: hushed;
  • murmur: hum;
  • blesser: person seeking divine favour for an item;
  • apart: on his own;
  • gaunt: lean, haggard;
  • cinctured: wearing a holy-man style belt
  • magician: sorcerer, charlatan;
  • jampot: glass jar;
  • icon: devotional representation of a holy figure, iconostasis: screen between the nave and sanctuary of many eastern churches where these are displayed;
  • sweet basil: aromatic herb;
  • abundance: large quantity;
  • censer: container in which incense is burned;
  • haunted: troubled, tormented;
  • unread: yet to be interpreted;
  • holy objects: Bibles, crosses, rosaries, holy water, relics;


  • triplet, triplet, septet, triplet in 6 sentences; varied line length 9-13 syllables; unrhymed;
  • balance of punctuated and enjambed lines;
  • ascetic gauntness based on a classical artist’s figures: El Greco;
  • in triplets 1 and 2 assonance (‘darkness…apart’) and alliteration using bilabial [p] [b] (‘sudued…passed…blesser…apart’) and fricative [v] (‘Vladimir…waving…above’);
  • inverse movement : darkness falling as they climb upwards;
  • compounds: water-blesser…El Greco-gaunt;
  • septet: enumeration of events lacks indefinite articles; alliteration ‘basil in abundance…being…celebrated…behind/ sibilant ‘censer swung’; assonant ‘celebrated…waving’;
  • final tripletalliterated [w] ‘who’d walked…allowing; assonant ‘sale…day…taste’;


Oh! the contrast … poised to return home the adventurer quickly shook off his rough-hewn Balkans’ experience, turning back into the seasoned traveller aboard a global carrier, familiar with the rivet-shaking thrust (Boeing’s innards trembled) that launched the aircraft into the blue (the pure serene) , set to enjoy the protection of international beacon systems (protocols of Air Traffic Control), the perks of a global brand (courtesy of Lufthansa), obedient to regulation (seat belt fastened as instructed), enjoying a cigarette (the minute the No Smoking went off), accepting with a faintly superior nod  (slight de haul en bas) the complimentary drinks (my due when wine was poured) already tuned in (headphoned head).

The Balkans’ package  –  Nema problema. The airline Ja.  Nothing to stop him – aII systems go!!

  • serene: archaic reference to clear sky
  • protocols: official procedures of those in control;
  • Air Traffic Control: control of the movement of planes from the ground, using radar;
  • due: something offered free as part of the air-fare
  • de haut en bas: French phrase, a slightly lordly nod of the head
  • all systems go: state of readiness for immediate action;
  • 8-line verse in 4 sentences, the first building up to the rat-a-tat preceding take-off;
  • variable line length; unrhymed;
  • international tags: French, Macedonian, German;
  • archaic, poetic ‘pure serene’ for ‘sky’; continuant [w]’went…when wine
  • alliterated velar [c] ‘climbed…protocol…control…courtesy; assonances ‘smoked…No Smoking…headphoned…go’;                                                                                                               
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]


  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;



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