Week 17: The Guttural Muse, by Seamus Heaney

The Guttural Muse

Late summer, and at midnight
I smelt the heat of the day:
At my window over the hotel car park
I breathed the muddied night airs off the lake
And watched a young crowd leave the discothèque.

Their voices rose up thick and comforting
As oily bubbles the feeding tench sent up
That evening at dusk—the slimy tench
Once called the “doctor fish” because his slime
Was said to heal the wounds of fish that touched it.

A girl in a white dress
Was being courted out among the cars:
As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs
I felt like some old pike all badged with sores
Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life.

Seamus Heaney

The most successful poet of modern times caught in a mood of vulnerability and alienation, wishing he could lay down his bardship and just go with the flow as one of the crowd. One is tempted to say ‘Forget it, Seamus, you’d be bored rigid in two minutes’, but whatever one’s scepticism towards the sentiment that muscular, sensuous language of his is, as ever, a delight.

Week 16: The Wild Geese, by Violet Jacob

The Wild Geese
“O tell me what was on yer road, ye roarin’ norlan’ Wind,
   As ye cam’ blawin’ frae the land that’s niver frae my mind?
My feet they trayvel England, but I’m deein’ for the north­—'”
   “My man, I heard the siller tides rin up the Firth o’ Forth.”

“Aye, Wind, I ken them weel eneuch, and fine they fa’ an’ rise,
   And fain I’d feel the creepin’ mist on yonder shore that lies,
But tell me, ere ye passed them by, what saw ye on the way?”
   “My man, I rocked the rovin’ gulls that sail abune the Tay.”

“But saw ye naethin’, leein’ Wind, afore ye cam’ to Fife?
   There’s muckle lyin’ yont the Tay that’s mair to me nor life.”
“My man, I swept the Angus braes ye hae’na trod for years—”
   “O Wind, forgi’e a hameless loon that canna see for tears!—”

“And far abune the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
   A lang, lang skein o’ beatin’ wings wi’ their heids towards the sea,
And aye their cryin’ voices trailed ahint them on the air—”
   “O Wind, hae maircy, haud yer whisht, for I daurna listen mair!”

Violet Jacob

A poem capturing the desolation of exile that is at the heart of so much of the Celtic experience: one thinks of Irish songs like ‘Spancil Hill’, and Welsh poems of ‘hiraeth’. It has been set to music under the title ‘Norlan Wind’ and performed by, among others, the great Scots ballad-singers Jean Redpath and Archie Fisher; it has a good tune but the words stand well enough on their own.

Week 15: Sea to the West, by Norman Nicholson

Sea to the West

When the sea’s to the west
The evenings are one dazzle –
You can find no sign of water.
Sun upflows the horizon;
Waves of shine
Heave, crest, fracture,
Explode on the shore;
The wide day burns.
In the incandescent mantle of the air.

Once, fifteen,
I would lean on handlebars,
Staring into the flare,
Blinded by looking,
Letting the gutterings and sykes of light
Flood into my skull.

Then, on the stroke of bedtime,
I’d turn to the town,
Cycle past purpling dykes
To a brown drizzle
Where black-scum shadows
Stagnated between backyard walls.
I pulled the warm dark over my head
Like an eiderdown.

Yet in that final stare when I
(Five times, perhaps, fifteen)
Creak protesting away –
The sea to the west,
The land darkening –
Let my eyes at the last be blinded
Not by the dark
But by the dazzle.

Norman Nicholson

The presence of light in this poem is so physical one almost feels one should be reading it through smoked glass, the way those ‘gutterings and sykes’ (a syke is a small ditch or rill) flood into one’s own skull. Certainly it more than earns the right to that final perhaps inevitable yet still surprising touch of the metaphysical.

Week 14: An Old Man’s Winter Night, by Robert Frost

An Old Man’s Winter Night

All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was 
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him – at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping here, he scared it once again
In clomping off; – and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man – one man – can’t keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

Robert Frost

One is spoilt for choice when it comes to the poems of Robert Frost, but this one seems to me to exemplify his deceptively subtle art of plainness as well as any: nothing pretentious, nothing for show, just focus, balance, cadence and compassion, bringing us back to poetry as, in Frost’s own words, ‘merely one more art of having something to say, sound or unsound. Probably better if sound….’