Seamus Heaney, 1939 — 2013

August 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Friday 18 September 2009

I find reading Heaney, then Larkin, that you begin to see the structure of the poet’s mind which is both recognizably human, in that I recognize myself, but at the same time utterly alien and unknowable. Grossman: “A poem is a fiction of a self seen from within.” Summa Lyrica p.246. No, perhaps that isn’t right — not unknowable, because I am in fact able to see or to begin to see this structure of another’s mind, which would, under normal circumstances, be completely inaccessible. Yet still alien, in that this is another mind. With Larkin, I identify and recognize the misanthropic gesture, while with Heaney I yearn for the possibility of transcendence and absolution he describes.

Monday 7 December 2009

What is it that so appeals to me in Heaney’s poems, which I want to emulate in my own? There is an economy of words in his free verse, which gives the appearance of form — 4- or 5-word lines, lines divided into stanzas — tercets or quatrains, although not always…I want to replicate the spareness of Heaney’s earlier poems, combined with his complexity of imagery — startling at times. There is also its groundedness, linked to its subject matter, his childhood on his parents’ farm…I like also the references to writing, letters, school satchels, common objects….His optimism. Their lyrical beauty — this comes through especially in his later collections — The Spirit Level, Seeing Things. They don’t chatter. They sing.

Saturday 2 January 2010

Reading Byatt’s The Children’s Book where there is a lot of discussion of pottery, clays, slips, glazes. I love the word ‘clay.’ …The words draw me — clay, slip, glaze, the metals and elements that produce distinct colours, And I thought of Heaney’s poem in The Spirit Level — ‘To a Dutch Potter in Ireland’: “Grey-blue, dull-shining, scentless, touchable — /Like the earth’s old ointment box, sticky and cool” and “Hosannah in clean sand and Kaolin/And, ‘now that the rye crop waves beside the ruins,’/In ash pits, oxides, shards and chlorophylls.” I like “sticky and cool” — the /k/s, and the word ‘sticky,’ the short and then long vowel, and the idea of clays in the ground that you dabble your fingers in like an ointment box, and of praising clay, the elements. Again it’s the alliteration — ‘clean’ and ‘Kaolin,’ although I don’t know what Kaolin is, the s‘s and sh‘s and then the final /k/ in chlrophylls. And again some kind of progression of vowels — ae, short o, long a, long o — short through long? several kinds of ‘a’? I don’t have the technical vocabulary to precisely describe this yet.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Rain. It always makes me want to write, to sit quietly with a pen in my hand and a notebook, and work on a poem. I am learning some things about writing poems, about refusing lines that come too easily, holding out for a sharper, more precise or startling image. And about sudden turns in the direction you thought you were going, when the language takes you elsewhere. Reading some of Heaney’s poems — the earlier ones, in North for example — there is a sense of watching an artist at work on a canvas, seeing the technique of laying down words, sounds, a sudden gesture that turns the poem in a new direction, taking you sideways, or turning something inside out, the process of defamiliarization. I’m not describing it right. Throw-away lines, that seem so casual — the last lines of ‘Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces,’ about pampooties. A lightness, and a way of deflecting the too easy (too heavy) conclusion. Or the ending of ‘Bone Dreams,’ although I don’t understand it, about the animal pelt and its tiny eyes. Well, I would like to do that.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

I was reading some of the poems in North while my students wrote their in-class essay last night. Trying to think about the elements that make them distinctively his —

1. place, setting — N. Europe, the bogs, N. Ireland, and also language & dialect as place or location in which you reside;

2. his focus on violence — Iron Age violent deaths, carried in the bodies of the bog people, mapped onto the violence in N. Ireland, if obliquely;

3. A precise, even technical vocabulary, not easily accessible. For example, in ‘Bog Queen,’: turf-face, demesne wall, glass-toothed stone (i.e. granite w/inclusions? glazed with ice?*), braille, Baltic amber, crock, diadem, ‘Carious,’ peat floe, bearings (as in ball bearings), sash, glacier, ‘Phoenician stitchwork,’ ‘retted’ (what is this? “retted on my breasts’/ soft moraines”), fjords, fledge, coomb, stone jambs, skull-ware, tufts. As if looking at a stone wall, all sharp hard words, of one-syllable. No, not entirely — coomb, moraine, floe, fjord, these are all soft. Perhaps I am thinking of the meaning — archaeological or geological terms, applied to a new domaine — the woman’s preserved body. Some descriptions are modified by adjectives that suggest rotting — “slimy birth-cord/of bog,” “bruised  berries.” There are nouns made into unusual verbs, “kinned,” “ossify myself” — from different poems (‘Kinship,’ and ‘Bone Dreams’?); *or, a stone wall topped with shards of glass

4. Brilliant Metaphors — “My body was braille/for the creeping influences” — the body like a tactile text read by the elements. The body as text is not uncommon, nor is land as text to be read — a common colonial gesture. But here it is the land reading her body — this is new, isn’t it? It strikes me as original and startling. Or “they lie gargling/in her sacred heart” — as if a blood rattle, their deaths — from ‘Kinship.’ Or her brain fermenting — “a jar of spawn/fermenting underground”;

5. Spareness, precision. Each line and stanza is pared down, stripped of excess, 7 syllables per line at most, many with less, like imagist poems. There is nothing common, or clichéd, or soft — except in terms of a body which is rotting or bruised. There is economy — a “cured wound” in ‘Grauballe Man;’

6. The erotic — some element of the erotic in these descriptions of her body? Is this because it follows on the heels of ‘Come to the Bower’ and ‘Bone Dreams’? an effect of resonance? from one poem to the next. And there is the erotic married to the violent — nipples like blown amber, always in the description of the woman (Ondaatje does this also) as if describing a rape, that which is taken;

7. Content? What are the poems about? What do they mean? Is this a naive question? And yet they seem deeply significant — at the level of individual words engaging with issues of colonialism and the violence inflicted by language in addition to the historical violence towards which they gesture. e.g. in ‘Bone Dreams’ where he addresses English literary heritage: “I push back/through dictions/Elizabethan canopies,/Norman devices,//the erotic Mayflowers/of Provence/and the ivied Latins/of churchmen/to the scop’s/twang, the iron/flash of consonants/cleaving the line.” As if pushing back through overgrown, flowering plants, he reveals a cross-section of the English language, which his poem cuts through like the flash of consonants where Anglo-Saxon words cleave the line — ban hus, bone house;

8. Abrupt, unexplained transitions — in ‘Bone Dreams,’ the final section on the dead mole? He loses me here. Or is it meant to take us back to the bone he finds in the grass in the opening section? This mole also will decay, and already suggests to him a whole landscape, the “small distant Pennines.”

And then the question becomes, what can I do, what have I done?

Wednesday 15th September 2010

I am reading Human Chain, which came in the mail on Monday, and I saved until late Tuesday night….I’ve only skimmed through it and now want to read it through again, slowly. There are poems on books, and scribes, and writing tools, scraps of Virgil and Keats, echoes of earlier poems he’s written, which is disconcerting — for example, echoes of ‘The Rainstick’ from The Spirit Level in one poem, as if you’re hearing a song transposed into a different key that’s foreign to you ( a different scale?) or a song translated into a foreign language similar to your own. Some repetition of style which has become a verbal tic, like scar tissue. And it also reads like a private summing up of a life — you are welcome to listen in, such an intimate offering, but he doesn’t offer many signposts — you are on your own.

in the margins of Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings

February 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Things I have found in books: a Taiwanese passport; a sheaf of notes for an essay on ocular metaphors in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; an ultrasound image of an embryo in utero; a cardiograph printout; $120 in cash; a phone message slip from a Vancouver motel circa 1950 (please call); a letter written to the poet Allen Grossman by his publishers, thanking him for being their author and offering him complementary copies of his book, The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle.

I bought The Long Schoolroom from the Advanced Book Exchange online, and assume that this was one of the complementary copies offered to Grossman by his publisher, copies he seems to have immediately sold to his local used bookstore. I don’t remember which book the phone message slip came from, only that it was another second-hand book from a local bookshop in Vancouver. The cash was mine, misplaced on a ferry trip to Victoria and then found several years later between pages 193 and 194 of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which I never finished. The other items I found while discharging books as a library assistant at the Woodward Biomedical Library, which might explain their medical provenance. Although oddly enough, the notes on ocular metaphors were my own: years before I had taken a graduate course on the nineteenth century novel, borrowed a book from Woodward on the history of the eye, left the notes inside the medical history, and then found them again several years later, by chance.

And one day at Tanglewood Books, in their old location on Broadway near Granville, I found, inside a Faber and Faber copy of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings — a fern-green copy from the 80s when they used to stipple their covers with tiny “f’s” — not a physical object, but a series of pencilled annotations by another reader. But this reader wasn’t writing the annotations for himself or herself, but for a woman (“Kate”), to whom I assume (s)he planned to give this book of poems as a gift. So as I read through Larkin’s poems for the first time, I also read the unfolding story of the relationship of this reader-annotator and  the woman I think (s)he loved.

For example, after “Talking in Bed” (“Talking in bed ought to be easiest/Lying together there goes back so far…”), my annotator has written:

O God I pray that this never happens to you and the man I want you to find some day, so please be careful when you choose. Hat.

And after MCMXIV (“Never such innocence,/Never before or since…”):

Not a happy poem and I am personally not prepared to accept. Hat.

Or after “A Study of Reading Habits”, where the final line has been underlined: “Books are a load of crap”:

Don’t believe this Kate because it all depends on the author and the factors that the reader accepts at the time of reading. Hat.

Why might my annotator be a man? The ego of it, perhaps. (Is this fair? Probably not.) The fact that he signs each somewhat banal pronouncement? The slightly condescending tone: let me teach you about the world, my love, you need protection, this is what I hope for you.

Or perhaps she is a woman, somewhat older, assuming a worldly tone for a younger woman she cares for. The name “Hat” might be short for Harriet. Or, if a man, “Hat” might be a nickname, a last name. The addressee is mute, as is almost always the case in the love poem as well. I know I have created a story for them: perhaps my annotator loved Kate, but was rejected; their friendship continued, and now (s)he acts as confidant, or guardian.

think the annotator is sincere; but I feel the same uncertainty I often feel reading Larkin — what exactly is Larkin’s attitude towards the place, subject, lover, he describes in any given poem? is he really as coarse as he sometimes presents himself to be? and is he sometimes as tender as I think he is, as in the brilliant opening poem of The Whitsun Weddings, “Here,” and possibly in its concluding one, “An Arundel Tomb”? And perhaps this uncertainty towards the speaker is connected to the unstable relationship between poet and lyric “I” filtered through language, a distance which Larkin plays upon, or hides behind. Perhaps I reveal my own desire for sincerity, for the poet’s fidelity.

At more cynical moments, I think the annotator must be playing a game; a clever student bored in class, making up annotations to amuse herself, making up a story.

When I feel the annotator is sincere, I think of how strange it is to be reading these poems in tandem with my annotator, gauging my own reactions to the poem with Hat’s own; and I begin to like this idea, how Hat’s annotations remind me of the many readers who have come before me and who will come after. Here, in Hat’s pencilled annotations, (s)he leaves some small trace of an encounter with poetry, and perhaps with love.

And if Hat ever ended up giving this annotated volume to Kate, I guess she did respond in a way — I found it, after all, for sale in a used bookstore.

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

I can’t improve the blunt, stark fact of the last line. It is satisfying and beautiful. Hat. 

Remember to ask me what I can tell you of my “blackness” experience. Hat.

PS From page 37 onto this page there is little for me to comment on because the underlined line above says it all. Hat.

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