Week 334: Grove Hill, by Seamus Heaney

This poem, which is part of a longer sequence, is a good illustration of Seamus Heaney’s gift for moving from the private and particular memory or observation to a moving statement of the universal. The unnamed ‘them’ in the third line are, of course, his parents, who are brought to the mind of a convalescent Heaney by the sound of a boiler starting up – I guess we all have particular sounds that trigger memories of childhood, we lived on a hill and mine would be the sound of the wind on autumn nights, hooting and snuffling outside the house like an invisible animal trying to find a way in.

Grove Hill

Now the oil-fired heating boiler comes to life
Abruptly, drowsily, like the timed collapse
Of a sawn down tree, I imagine them

In summer season, as it must have been,
And the place, it dawns on me,
Could have been Grove Hill before the oaks were cut,

Where I’d often stand with them on airy Sundays
Shin-deep in hilltop bluebells, looking out
At Magherafelt’s four spires in the distance.

Too late, alas, now for the apt quotation
About a love that’s proved by steady gazing
Not at each other but in the same direction.

Seamus Heaney

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Week 307: Song, by Seamus Heaney

No doubt we all have our favourite Seamus Heaney collections (and while ‘Collected Poems’ are very satisfying and serviceable, is there not an excitement that a ‘Collected’ can never quite replace about reading a poet’s collections as they come out?). For me, it has to be ‘Field Work’, which I think shows the poet in his prime, in full relish of his mastery. This week’s choice is a relatively simple lyric from that collection, compared with some of the complex and demanding (but very satisfying) poems that it contains. I have to say that I’m not too sure about the image in the first line. It seems to me that a girl would need to be wearing an awful lot of lipstick in a lot of unusual places to look anything like the berry-laden rowan trees I’ve seen. But I do like the second stanza. Appropriately for an Irish poem, the last line echoes the answer given by the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, who when asked what he thought was the best music of all said ‘The music of what happens’.

Song

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

Seamus Heaney

Week 165: Postscript, by Seamus Heaney

165

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.

Postscript

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 107: Exposure, by Seamus Heaney

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.

Exposure

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.

Seamus Heaney

Week 45: Limbo, by Seamus Heaney

So we have lost Seamus Heaney, and that’s a loss indeed. He was very good at Being A Poet, but more to the point, and the two don’t always go together, he was also very good at being a poet. It’s hard to pick out a single poem to represent him from so accomplished an oeuvre, but I have always felt that this one shows his Dantesque intensity of vision coupled with an empathy not always so characteristic of the great Italian.

Limbo

Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of her cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

Seamus Heaney

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.