In conversation with DOD (p.325) Heaney revealed the period of intense creative activity that accompanied the genesis of Seeing Things: I was pouncing on twelve liners on all kinds of occasions … chance sentences from my reading. They just turned up and he went with it.
This poem pits the skills of the experienced tracker against a creature’s survival instinct; its ability to disappear was not unlike what became of an erstwhile drinking buddy.
As a result of his reading, perhaps, Heaney offers a lesson to an imagined beginner in tracking hare via prints in the snow. Initial progress is easy enough until a problem arises: the prints stop without warning (just like that). So, literally and metaphorically this is the end of the line. Head scratching ensues (Smooth drifts. Where did she go?)
The old hand knows the answer- initially Back on her tracks, of course, then an act of sheer athleticism (a spring yards off to the side), bringing about the perfect disappearing act (clean break); no scent or sign, her soft landing in her previously made dent (form) further camouflaged (ate the snow).
Heaney’s tracking exercise introduces the poet’s further intention: lesson two – find the hieroglyph – a zig-zag at once concrete (hare) and abstract (‘to exist’).
The hare’s nervous nature (on the qui vive, weaving and dodging) reminds Heaney of a hare-like chap who suddenly disappeared (our friend who sprang (goodbye) leaving no trace (beyond our ken), a fellow suddenly absent from the local pub (missed a round at last), but who had never failed to pay his way when he was in the bar (but of course he’d stood it).
Heaney selects descriptors from an anonymous lyric he translated to describe the man’s affability (shake-the-heart), his early rising (dew-hammer) and alertness to potential pitfalls (far-eyed).
- track: marks, spoor;
- just like that: (idiom) suddenly, unexpectedly
- drift: snow accumulated by the wind
- spring: leap, jump
- clean break: complete separation/ removal from a situation;
- in her form: unchanged; still the same creature;
- hieroglyph: allusion to ancient Egyptian motifs that represented words, or sounds;
- zig-zag: short, parallel straight lines moving abruptly left and right/up and down;
- on the qui vive: alert, on the lookout for threats;
- weave: twist and turn;
- dodge: duck and dive;
- ken: understanding, grasp;
- stand a round: buy a drink for the group;
- shake-the-heart/ dew-hammer/ far-eyed: The Rattle Bag of 1982, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes features “The Names of the Hare,” Heaney’s version of an anonymous Middle English lyric; the piece contains more than seventy laconic thumbnails of the hare including the following: the skulker, the bleary-eyed, the wall-eyed, the glance-aside…/the shag-the-hare, the hedge-squatter, the dew-hammer, the dew-hoppper …/ the sudden start, the shake-the-heart …
- For Helen Vendler (HVp.146) Seeing Things is a book of symbolic and indicative hieroglyphs – the unroofed wallstead, the carved river – rather than a representational book … it draws its hieroglyphs from the material world, … It is interested in a mode of vision focused by – but not on – damage ( ) In Seeing Things almost every hieroglyph inscribes within itself its own annihilation … each hieroglyph is to ‘stand for its own idea’;
- The 48 poems of the ‘Squarings’ sequences follow an identical format (12 lines in 4 triplets}; Heaney suggests the format just happened that way: ‘given, strange and unexpected’ … ‘I didn’t quite know where it came from but I knew immediately it was there to stay’) DOD 321;
- 4 triplets; variable line length 9-11 syllables; triple end-of-line rhyme but no scheme;
- 7-sentence structure: 1-6 describe the hare’s strategy in short, tracker-monologue stages; 7 introduces a hieroglyph and applies it to an an absent friend;
- the narrative flow is a smooth balance between punctuation (some of it mid-line) and enjambed lines;
- mood and tone are relaxed, matter-of-fact like people talking to themselves out loud!
- teacher-like imperative ‘choose’
- ‘end of the line’, dual intent: no further progress possible; no more hare-tracks visible;
- 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:
- 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;
- for example, the final four lines interweave front-of-mouth sounds …bi-labial plosives [p] [b] and fricatives [v] [f] plus [l] [w] alveolar plosives [t] [d], velar plosives [g] [k], sibilants [s][sh] and nasal [n];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;