From the late 1970’s Seamus Heaney enjoyed a long relationship with Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, initially as a guest lecturer. His regular presence enabled him to share the cultural calendar of America’s oldest established Ivy League university including a visual arts installation dating from May 1994.
Its launch coincided with the spring-is-in-the-air suggestiveness of the most famous of the English madrigals, by Thomas Morley published in 1595 (Now is the Month of Maying).
The installation lent a forest tree-top effect to Harvard Yard with added sights and sounds. In Heaney’s imagination it triggered something much more otherworldly. Spring was in the air (young green) and with it a hush of anticipation (whispering everywhere).
An English visual artist had installed a sound system in the tree-tops (voice boxes in the branches), 1990s’ technology camouflaged (wrapped in sacking) to mimic the real thing (like old wasps’ nests) or be attractive to nocturnal creatures (bat-fruit in the gloaming) … its shapes in lumpy post-Creation profile (shadow Adam’s apples).
Enter sound, its amplification adding to the atmospheric: distorted alliterative hiss (sibilant ebb and flow) human voices now strong now weak (speech-gutterings), random (desultory), now muted (hush), now rising or falling (backwash), now resonant (echo).
Imaginative possibilities abound: hints of Heaney’s Catholic upbringing (recording of antiphonal responses) presented as a spiritual dialogue in non-religious setting (congregation of the leaves), or a troubled sylvan setting (wood that talked in its sleep) or, renewing the allegory present in A Herbal, plants sharing intimate inner feelings (reeds on a riverbank going over and over their secrets).
Humans respond – the babble they pick up captures the attention of those passing (cocking their ears) stopping them in their tracks (gathering), stilling their chatter (quietening) as they show deference to others (stepping on to the grass) and share the unexpected (stopping and holding hands).
Heaney salutes the imaginative fusion of elemental and technological (earth … replaying its tapes) and the innovative musicality of ‘language’ (words being given new airs).
The magical quality triggers an immediate correspondence in the poet’s mind (Dante’s whispering wood) merging classical legend and modernity (wood of the suicides … magicked to lover’s lane).
Had the trees at Harvard (twig … broken off) come to life (curled itself like a finger around the fingers that broke it) and obstinately clung on (refused to let go) as in Dante’s wood (like mistletoe taking tightening hold) no one would have batted an eyelid … or so Heaney was thinking as reality was restored (the fairy lights came on).
The first part of Dante’s 14th century epic ‘Divine Comedy’ was his ‘Inferno’; Canto XIII located in the Seventh Circle of Hell features The Wood of the Suicides where those who had killed themselves were entombed in gnarled, accursed trees where they were continually tormented by harpies breaking branches and snapping limbs.
- Harvard Yardis an extensive, pristine grassy area in the centre of the Harvard campus surrounded by academic and administrative buildings;
- David Ward,born in Wolverhampton, UK in 1951; artist using a range of media including painting, photography, light and performance; he worked extensively with choreographers and architects, exhibited widely in the UK, across Europe and in the USA; was Artist in Residence at Harvard University;
- voice-box: box shaped amplifiers;
- speaker: loudspeaker;
- sacking: coarse hessian-like material;
- bat-fruit: tree fruit edible to certain bats;
- gloaming: twilight, dusk;
- Adam’s apple: upper neck projection most common to men;
- ebb and flow: cycle of coming and going (tide), growth and decline (Nature)
- gutter: come and go, alternate between loud and quiet, clear and distorted;
- desultory: random;
- backwash; backward flow of air, water, sound;
- antiphonal: liturgical responses from one group to another;
- talk in one’s sleep: say things while actually asleep; largely a mild sleep condition;
- cock one’s ears: listen up, listen attentively;
- tapes: now outmoded cassette style recordings of sound, stored for later use;
- airs: neat combination of airing in the sense of broadcast and airs in the sense of affectation;
- The first part of Dante’s 14th century epic ‘Divine Comedy’ was his ‘Inferno’; Canto XIII located in the Seventh Circle of Hell features The Wood of the Suicides where those who have committed suicide are entombed in gnarled, accursed trees where they are continually tormented by harpies embodied perhaps in the trees themselves who break branches and snap limbs.
- magic: create as if by sorcery;
- lover’s lane: area of seclusion for sharing intimate moments;
- mistletoe: tree parasite with small white berries associated since Celtic times with fertility; decoration beneath which people kiss around Christmas time;
- tighten: constrict;
- fairy lights: strings of small coloured electric bulbs associated with periods of celebration;
- bough: main/ predominant tree branch;
- This emotive and evocative piece is a prime example Heaney’s mastery of form:
- 9 quatrains; free verse; lines based around 6 syllables;Stanza 1 contains both the alliteration of line 1 and the assonance of trees/ green; the use of present participles: -ing is an extendable sound, adding a musical dynamic to the poem and permitting variation of pace;
- The next 6 lines combine the alliterative [w] of Ward/wrapped/ wasps/ shadow with the variant sounds of [a]: Ward/ installed; had/ sacking/ wrapped; wasp; Adam’s apples; Voice boxes take us from the visual launch into sound: the frequency of sibilants [s] and [sh] echo and mimic the distortions caused by the sound system: sibilant ebb and flow/ Speech-gutterings, desultory/ Hush and backwash and echo. The Physics of sound-waves invites a tidal analogy: ebb and flow/ backwash;
- the assonance ofsleep and reeds marks the introduction of people and with them present participles that give presentness to a story from the past whilst expressing the gradualness of the hypnotic process;
- new airs: the term ‘airs’ conveys multiple connotations: words are literally released into the open air; airs are songs with melody and musicality; airs put on by humans betray attitude, demeanour and bearing: Heaney’s words enter the quiet of a Dantesque scene of Words/ whispering/ wood, a quiet shattered by the onomatopoeiccrack audible in the alveolar plosive of twig as the latter takes on a life and mind of its own (in a nightmarish reminder of inanimate objects coming to life in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice);
- Heaney’s response to the make-believe atmosphere brought to a climax when the fairy/ Lights … came on culminates with a reference to pagan practices: strangulation by parasitic mistletoe Taking tightening hold;
- An entry from The Boston Globe, May 1994 reads:This week, Ward works his wizardry in the other Cambridge, illuminating the ancient elms in Harvard Yard and making sound pour forth from their topmost branches in a work called “Canopy …
The 1994 Harvard University Public Art Residency was an unprecedented collaborative effort to demonstrate the importance of contemporary visual art within a research university. British artist David Ward was in residence at Harvard for six highly productive months, culminating in the temporary installation Canopy: a work for voices and light that featured thirty separate sound sources suspended in the trees of Harvard Yard. Each source played the recorded voices of people speaking in a number of languages including English, Italian, Haitian Creole, Polish, and Russian. The voices told stories about place (including passages from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities), personal memories, poems, and folk tales.
- 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: fourteen 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;