‘Known and strange things’: two poems by Seamus Heaney

I. Postscript:

“I always felt you earned your living,” Seamus Heaney has said, “and your poetry was a grace” (Out of the Marvellous). The poem ‘Postscript’ is the final in his first collection written after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. It seemed to come as a gift to the poet: “Now and again a poem comes like that, like a ball kicked in from nowhere. […] before I knew where I was, I went after it” (Stepping Stones, p. 366). The poem opens as if mid-thought, the tone gently assertive:

“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…”

‘Postscript’, The Spirit Level, 1996

He seems to catch the ‘speedy feel’ (Stepping Stones) of the wind, the lake, the Irish west-coast (“wild with foam and glitter”), the swans (“their feathers ruffed and ruffling, white on white”). The opening eleven lines, of what is essentially a poem in blank verse, form a single sentence in which Heaney opens up his gift for marrying the lyrical and the vernacular. His metaphors are so effortless as to seem almost organic, and to grow out of his physical descriptions: “The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit/ By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans.” The poem shifts and becomes weightier at the point at which he pauses to counsel:

“Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass…”

‘Postscript’

The very physicality of words is at play here like the plosive sibilance of the Atlantic – the soft boom and wash. As is his gift for idiomatic language slipping and losing traction in the mouth, even as it is spoken. In seeking out new meanings, the often throw-away phrase neither here nor there is given new life. The self he addresses is both emptied, then filled, with the experience of the natural world. The poem ends as Heaney describes the “big, soft buffetings” that “catch the heart off-guard, and blow it open.”

II. The Blackbird of Glanmore:

A decade later Heaney wrote another poem in which his experience of the natural world is mediated from inside a vehicle. The closing poem of his collection District & Circle (2006), ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ describes a more domestic setting (the Heaney family home of Glanmore cottage in County Wicklow). He addresses the blackbird directly: “On the grass when I arrive, filling the stillness with life… It is you, blackbird, I love.”

The poet moves effortlessly from the present moment (“I park, pause, take heed./ Breathe. Just breathe and sit”) into the past of his own writing-life:

“And lines I once translated come back:
‘I want away to the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.’”

‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, District & Circle (2006)

This association then allows him to remember his four year-old brother, Christopher, killed in a road accident in the early 1950s when the young Seamus was away at grammar school. “And I think of one gone to him,/ A little stillness-dancer…” The allusion ‘I want away to the house of death’ is to his translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, although Heaney may have also been thinking of his own on-going translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas visits the spirit of his father in the underworld:

“Let me take your hand, my father, O let me and do not
Hold back from my embrace. And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach his arms around that neck.”

Aeneid, Book VI, lines 940—42, p. 38

Heaney’s own father died in 1986, and the poet describes his life-long love of Virgil’s poem as intensifying from this time onwards.    

Again, he moves effortlessly through time. This time from the past back to the present by remembering the superstitious words of a neighbour about a bird on the shed roof, ‘I said nothing at the time/ But I never liked yon bird.’ This archaic voice from the past (and with it the bird as ill-omen) are silenced in a near-cinematic moment: “The automatic door clunks shut.” Back in the present, the speaker gets out of the car and describes the aerial or ‘bird’s-eye view’ of himself as “a shadow on raked gravel/ In front of my house of life.” The poem, then, is one of life and death. Of breath and shadows. But far from an ill-omen, the blackbird is a sign of life and renewal.

Interestingly, when Aeneas enters the underworld, he does so at a place called Avernus, ‘place without birds’ (Aeneid, Book VI, lines 320—21). It seems natural that Heaney would associate birds with life. But we don’t need the classics to tell us this. In a strange moment of synchronicity, it is Sunday afternoon and a blackbird appears down among the cobble-stones and gravel as I’m writing. And again this morning after a heavy summer storm last night. A bird I’ve not seen here before. Or perhaps I’ve not been paying close enough attention. Heaney’s lines come back with their undaunted bird-like animation:

“Your ready talk-back,
Your each stand-offish come-back,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.”

‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’

References in this post:

Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous (Produced by Charlie McCarthy), An Icebox films production for RTE, Ireland.
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Dennis O’ Driscoll (Faber & Faber, 2008)
Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (Faber, 1996)
S.H., District & Circle (Faber, 2006)
Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI (SH. Trans., Faber, 2016 – published posthumously)
Sophocles’ Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy (SH, trans., Faber, 1990)
Heaney wrote about his brother in the poem ‘Mid-Term Break’, in Death of a Naturalist (1966), his first collection

NB. I previously suggested that Heaney’s father died in 1987. However, a haiku the poet wrote entitled I.I.87, suggests that he died in 1986.

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Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020

One thought on “‘Known and strange things’: two poems by Seamus Heaney

  1. Pingback: ‘Like a root in arid ground’: what poems about trees might tell us | Benedict Gilbert poems

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