A comet has been much in the news this week as the remarkable Rosetta probe makes its successful landing. Maybe those immemorial loners from the outer dark don’t figure in poetry as much as they should, but here’s a poem where one does make a beautiful (and deeply resonant) appearance. I have wondered if Heaney had a specific comet in mind: maybe comet Kohoutek that brightened our skies for a while in 1973. For those who missed it, the good news is that it will be back in about 75000 years.
It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.
A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,
And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,
Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.
How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me
As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;
Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
Dear Mr Sutton,
My very honest congratulations to you on choosing this great Heaney poem just at this perfect moment in time.
Thank you so much and best regards
Michael K. Locher
Thank you, Michael, good to hear from you again. Yes, it’s a superb poem, isn’t it, and the thing about great poems, as distinct from great space probes, is that their batteries never run out…
Fron wikipedia: “There was a long tradition of guerrilla warfare in Ireland before the 1690s. Irish irregulars in the 16th century were known as ceithearnaigh choille, “wood-kerne”, a reference to native Irish foot-soldiers called ceithearnaigh, or “kerne”.”
Yes, and in Richard II Shakespeare refers to ‘rough rugheaded kerns’. They were a class below the ‘gallowglass’, supplying a light infantry to back up the gallowglasses’ heavy.
“anvil brains” – hard unyielding brains? “tristia” – literally “sad things” (from Latin trīstis), sorrows? Regarding the last section: If he’d taken sides he might have seen the comet – but as things stand he has a fire providing only “meagre heat”?
Yes, there is a lot to ferret out in this poem. I wonder if there is a pivotal opposition here between comet and meteorite, in that a comet has the kind of predictable path that Heaney as a poet is maybe trying to avoid, whereas a meteorite, or falling star, seems to flash on the scene out of nowhere, which he maybe takes as a better metaphor for poetry, or at least one that he would prefer for himself. I like in this context to think of the fox, vanishing like a falling star at the end of ‘Y Llwynog’ (see week 252). But at the same time, maybe, Heaney is saying that sometimes a poet actually needs to be predictable, to face up to and address the great issues of the time, and his own evasion is a dereliction of poetic duty. I’m rather groping here, but perhaps you get my drift.
Hi David, yes you’re groping – but that’s because Heaney is making you grope. The comet is mentioned twice so seems to be more important than the meteorite. Yes Heaney does seem to mention poets who face up to the great issues of the time, eg a hero poet, “His gift like a slingstone”? Heaney is not that kind of poet.
Here’s a quote from a Heaney interview in 2006: “Forthrightness is great, but it shades into triumphalism at times, it shades into obstinacy and it shades into vindictiveness. So you’re caught between a language of diplomacy which opens a path, which is a very, very narrow path, it’s just a chink of some sort… you’re caught between that diplomacy language and the yearning for forthrightness, living with the ambiguity of asking yourself, ‘Am I being insincere, or am I being courteous?’ People live on a very fine edge there in the North.”
The “diamond absolutes” of verse eight sound important. They are statements he can hold onto and live by? Eg “I am neither internee nor informer”. Are “I am a wood-kerne” or “I am a meteorite” or “I am not a comet” among his diamond absolutes?