From the Frontier of Writing

Beyond Heaney’s metaphysical assertion that (for creative spirits at least) ‘somewhere can be anywhere’ one comes to understand that in stark reality the poet is rarely just ‘anywhere’: we recognise a road block mounted by the British Army somewhere in Northern Ireland in the post 1972 period, acknowledge that Heaney is the man behind the wheel of his car and that, similar to the fate of a nation under occupation, this poet’s life and career have undergone humiliating stresses and strains of others’ making.

The piece’s first 12 lines adopt a kind of ‘cinéma vérité’ approach – portraying threatening subject matter, exposing an unpleasant reality that so many Irish people suffered at the time, reducing military scrutiny to its basic routine and repressing personal feelings on both sides.

Only when the poet crosses a virtual frontier into the land of writing will he enjoy freedom of thought, emotion and expression … the pleasures of vocation.

Heaney, real-time driver, enters the cramped, constricted void (tightness and the nilness round that space) of a checkpoint (car stops in the road). Soldiers check external data (inspect its make and number). In a neat cinematographic ‘take’ the stooping movement of one (bends his face) reveals an outer circle (more on a hill beyond) of men meaning business (eyeing with intent), ostensibly relaxed (down cradled guns) but masters of all that they survey (hold you under cover).

A checklist of questions (everything is pure interrogation) is followed by gun-directed permission for the driver to proceed (rifle motions and you move). The driver adopts an indifferent expression but avoids making it too blatant (guarded unconcerned acceleration).

He emerges from roadblock limbo a little emptier, a little spent, only too aware of his repressed anger (that quiver in the self) at having bowed to the control of occupying forces in his own land (subjugated, yes, and obedient).

Heaney the poet pens an identical journey into his own creative land (So you drive on to the frontier of writing) deliberately close in its allegory to his previous journey (where it happens again): this time it features a different artillery of opposition (guns on tripods) – self-important adjudicators(sergeant with his on-off mike) communing on grape-vines (repeating data about you) – grudging approvals of his performance (squawk of clearance) – pundits taking pot-shots (marksman training down) – predatory strikes from blind-spots (out of the sun) set to devour him (like a hawk).

Then suddenly survival beckons (you’re through) – having been put to the test he has passed (arraigned yet freed) and emerges through the saturating blur of a cataract (from behind a waterfall) onto a solid highway that stretches away in front of him (black current of a tarmac road), leaving the forces of opposition in his wake (past armour-plated vehicles), watching symbols of threat (posted soldiers flowing and receding) dissolve slowly into lyrical poetic form (tree shadows) further embellishing his creative journey (polished windscreen).

Heaney’s next volume Seeing Things (1991) in Crossings xxxi illustrates this kind of poetic dissolution where under poetic charge things melt into something else: You drive into a meaning made of trees./ Or not exactly trees. It is a sense/ Of running through and under without let’.

  • tightness: constricted feeling brought on by anxiety;
  • nilness: emptiness, void;
  • space: the term resonates through The Haw Lantern directly and indirectly; the word first came to prominence in Station Island (1984) as part of Heaney’s responses to the 12 individual Stations of the Cross on Loch Derg. Poem III in the sequence expresses Heaney’s reaction to a particularly bleak station as ‘walking round/ and round a space utterly empty,/ utterly a source’; this emptiness is linked in the present volume with what was there before (‘absence’) and how that may have come about (‘clearance’);
  • with intent: meaning business, prepared to turn threat into action;
  • cradled gun: levelled but held at hip level;
  • motion: direct wordlessly;
  • guarded: cautious, wary;
  • unconcern: show of indifference;
  • quiver tremble, shiver of emotion;
  • subjugated: dominated, controlled; not free to act;
  • tripod: three-legged stand;
  • on-off mike: two-way walkie-talkie;
  • squawk: loud, harsh bird-like sound;
  • clearance; here official permission to proceed, removal of unpleasant objects; elsewhere in the collection connotations of 1 levelling, bulldozing 2 removing, supplanting people 3 disappearance and death;
  • marksman: specialist sniper;
  • train: point, aim (gun or camera);
  • through: on the other side (of an ordeal);
  • arraigned: formally called to account for yourself:
  • behind a waterfall: area of softer eroded rock behind the cascade;
  • posted: set out in strategic position;
  • flow/ recede: come and go like the tide.


  • 8 triplets written in a terza rima variant of Dante – aba bdb etc;
  • 2 frontiers, one actual, one virtual, crossed in mirror imaged halves;
  • line length largely 10 syllables; part 1 in a single hyphenated sentence, a heavily enjambed flow of consciousness; part 2 in 3 sentences with a balance of punctuation and enjambment;
  • vocabulary of close scrutiny: part 1 the limbo of a driver under inspection from outside; part 2 the poet passing his own scrutiny test from inside;
  • contrast between the non-existence feeling of part 1 and the euphoria of liberation in the second half;
  • assonant effects: [ei] space…make…face…interrogation…acceleration…waiting…training…arraigned; [ai] tightness…sight…eye…rifle…drive…writing…tripods; [i] nilness…hill…with intent…little…quiver…polished windscreen; [i:] freed…between…behind…vehicle…receding…tree…screen
  • alliterative chains: frequent use of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [b/p], velar [k/g], sibilant variants [s/z/sh], labio dental fricatives [f/v];

Source views:

  • HV The Haw Lantern’s insistence on the equality of presence between the material and the immaterial is brought to geometrical demonstration … Its four opening tercets … are exactly matched by four appended and almost identical tercets, in which the poet is self-halted, while writing, at the frontier of conscience. We understand our invisible inner motions, Heaney implies, only by analogy with our experience in the material world. Like the obituary for Heaney’s mother, ‘From the Frontier of Writing’ opens around a ‘space’ utterly empty and stilled, but this time the space is one of minatory ‘nilness’. Its material hellishness and its spiritual purgation are emphasized by its rendition in a version of Dantesque terza rima: (HV115)
  • The four poems whose titles begin with the word ‘From’ (‘From the Frontier of Writing’, ‘From the Republic of Conscience’, ‘From the Land of the Unspoken’, ‘From the Canton of Expectation’) in The Haw Lantern could be called strange letters too, letters here in the sense of fictional missives or messages from a foreign correspondent travelling in mysterious and dangerous places (NC147)
  • NC The ‘frontier of writing’ becomes the place or space in which you free yourself from repression or subjugation, the opportunity for disobedience, the frontier post at which you are ethically and aesthetically cleared. When the interrogation ‘happens again’ at the frontier of writing, the poem may be recalling Auden’s insistence, in ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, that ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ In Heaney, by making something nevertheless ‘happen again’, writing acts as the agency of personal reIease … the rhyme, the first stanza above suggests, is first an act of ‘repeating’, as the initial experience is remembered and re-presented; but then it becomes a way of getting ‘through’. That word is primarily the signal that clearance has been effected: writing moves you across a frontier to freedom (NC148)
  • When the poet-persona of ‘From the Frontier of Writing’ is, at the last, ‘arraigned (called before a court to answer a criminal charge, censured if not censored) yet freed’, the implication is that, whatever liberties are permitted by the act of writing, there must remain, on the part of the writer himself or herself, a subjection to other ethical obligations (ibid149)
  • MP 214 The notion of being subjected to scrutiny and ‘earning the right to proceed Iies at the heart of ‘From the Frontier of Writing’. The first of a series of ambitious experiments using other voices, written over a three week period, it owes much to his readings in Eastern European poetry.
  • the poem takes place at the intersection of the real and the surreal, the concrete and the abstract, public and private spheres. Moving quickly, quietly, with sinister intent, it actualises a whole field of force and fear which contains both the soldiers and you, the driver, until, half-way through, it daringly shifts ground.
  • MP Previously Heaney had employed myths and metaphors as a way into examining political realities; here he turns that process on its head, using political realities as metaphors for the troubles faced by the writer.” Once the words are set down, the book published, the author has to endure the prospect of ‘marksman’ critics ‘training down’ on him, has to await the ‘squawk/ of clearance’. What makes the pressure bearable is the lift that comes when ‘suddenly you’re through’, and the interrogators and their illusory, ‘armour plated’ power seem no more substantial than ‘tree shadows’, ‘flowing and receding’ on the ‘polished windscreen’ of his art. (MP214)
  • 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: thirteen 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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