Week 165: Postscript, by Seamus Heaney


I have had more than one poet friend of normally sound judgment who has not taken to Seamus Heaney at all, dismissing him as dull. People are entitled to their tastes, but this puzzles me. Yes, a poem like the following may not be at all flashy, but is it not, at a deep level, quietly satisfying? And is not that image of the swans in line eight the kind of thing that marks out a true maker? It is proper in this trade of ours to resist hype and to question consensus, but one must also allow for the possibility that sometimes just because everybody says that something is good, it doesn’t mean it’s not good.


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Seamus Heaney

Week 164: The Idea of Order at Key West, by Wallace Stevens

While my attitude to the writing of poetry is essentially a flexible ‘whatever works’, I suppose I do incline somewhat to traditional values: poems are made of words, and words are made of meaning, and if you don’t understand what a poem means at the literal level you are probably just fooling yourself if you claim to admire it. This gives me a bit of a problem with Wallace Stevens. I have read this poem many times, liking its musicality and imagery, but to be honest I still have very little idea what Stevens is trying to say here. The simple explanation, of course, is that it’s my fault for being thick, yet the unworthy suspicion remains that maybe Stevens wasn’t too sure either. And yet, whatever it was, he does say it rather beautifully. How tempting just to relax and go with the music, even if in the end I return to poets like Frost where the sense may be more subtle than you think but you can always trust that it is there. 

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Wallace Stevens

Week 163: Thoughts on ‘The Diary of a Nobody’, by John Betjeman

I have never quite made up my mind about John Betjeman – is he to be grouped with those who, in the words of F.R.Leavis, ‘belong to the history of publicity rather than of poetry’, or was he a powerful original talent not least among whose gifts was an ability to engage with a public normally indifferent or hostile to poetry while retaining an idiosyncratic integrity? Well, I may confess to a slight unease about some aspects of his work and persona, but I don’t think it can be denied that he had a genius for evoking the vanished time and the lost place, as in this nostalgic look at suburbia.

Thoughts on ‘The Diary of a Nobody’

The Pooters walked to Watney Lodge
One Sunday morning hot and still
Where public footpaths used to dodge
Round elms and oaks to Muswell Hill.

That burning buttercuppy day
The local dogs were curled in sleep,
The writhing trunks of flowery May
Were polished by the sides of sheep.

And only footsteps in a lane
And birdsong broke the silence round
And chuffs of the Great Northern train
For Alexandra Palace bound.

The Watney Lodge I seem to see
Is gabled gothic hard and red,
With here a monkey puzzle tree
And there a round geranium bed.

Each mansion, each new-planted pine,
Each short and ostentatious drive
Meant Morning Prayer and beef and wine
And Queen Victoria alive.

Dear Charles and Carrie, I am sure,
Despite that awkward Sunday dinner,
Your lives were good and more secure
Than ours at cocktail time in Pinner.

John Betjeman

Week 162: Public Library, by Dannie Abse

The Welsh writer Dannie Abse, who died last year, had a line in evocative urban melancholy that I find engaging, as in this poem where he speculates somewhat wryly on his likely readership. But how nice to be able to assume that one does actually have a readership…

Public Library

Who, in the public library, one evening after rain,
amongst the polished tables and linoleum,
stands bored under blank light to glance at these pages?
Whose absent mood, like neon glowing in the night,
is conversant with wet pavements, nothing to do?

Neutral, the clock-watching girl stamps out the date,
a forced celebration, a posthumous birthday,
her head buttered by the drizzling library lamps,
yet the accident of words, too, can light the semi-dark
should the reader lead them home, generously journey,
later to return, perhaps leaving a bus ticket as a bookmark.

Who wrote in margins hieroglyphic notations,
that obscenity, deleted this imperfect line?
Read by whose hostile eyes, in what bed-sitting room,
in which rainy, dejected railway stations?

Dannie Abse