“The poet is on the side of undeceiving the world. It means being vigilant in the public realm. But you can go further still and say that poetry tries to help you to be a truer, purer, wholer being.” SEAMUS HEANEY
The New York Times has a predictably insightful obituary on the life and work of this giant of a poet whose death this week was mourned the world over.
One of the gems hidden within it was a reference to a talk Heaney gave about the development of a poet’s voice and craft–
The eldest of nine children of a cattle dealer, Seamus Justin Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, at Mossbawn, his family’s farm in County Derry, west of Belfast. The farm’s name would appear throughout his work. Mr. Heaney’s intoxication with language, he said in a 1974 lecture, “Feeling into Words,” [given at the Royal Society of literature, Oct., 1974] “began very early when my mother used to recite lists of affixes and suffixes, and Latin roots, with their English meanings, rhymes that formed part of her schooling in the early part of the century.”
Later in the lecture, he ventured an alternative scenario: “Maybe it was stirred by the beautiful sprung rhythms of the old BBC weather forecast: Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Shetland, Faroes, Finisterre; or with the gorgeous and inane phraseology of the catechism; or with the litany of the Blessed Virgin that was part of the enforced poetry in our household: Tower of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted.”
What follows here is a brief excerpt from that talk. Anyone remotely interested or even merely curious about poetry/poets and poetics will find it fascinating. Click link above for the full text.
“Feeling into Words”
I intend to retrace some paths into what William Wordsworth called in The
Prelude ‘the hiding places’.
“The hiding places of my power
Sèem open; I approach, and then they close;
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all, and I would give,
While yet we may, as far as words can give,
A substance and a life to what I feel:
I would enshrine the spirit of the past
For future restoration.”
Implicit in those lines is a view of poetry which I think is implicit in the few poems I have written that give me any right to speak: poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura and authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants.
‘Digging’, in fact, was the name of the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words, or to put it more accurately, where I thought my feel had had got into words. Its rhythms and noises still please me, although there are a couple of lines in it that have more of the theatricality of the gunslinger than the self-absorption of the digger. I wrote it in the summer of 1964, almost two years after I had begun to ‘dabble in verses’. This was the first place where I felt I had done more than make an arrangement of words: I felt that I had let down a shaft into real life. The facts and surfaces of the thing were true, but more important, the excitement that came from naming them gave me a kind of insouciance and a kind of confidence. I didn’t care who thought what about it: somehow, it had surprised me by coming out with a stance and an idea that I would stand over:
* Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (London: Faber & Faber, 1980), 41-60.
“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.”
As I say, I wrote it down years ago; yet perhaps I should say that I dug it up, because I have come to realize that it was laid down in me years before that even. The pen/spade analogy was the simple heart of the matter and that was simply a matter of almost proverbial common sense. As a child on the road to and from school, people used to ask you what class you were in and how many slaps you’d got that day and invariably they ended up with an exhortation to keep studying because ‘learning’s easy carried’ and ‘the pen’s lighter than the spade’. And the poem does no more than allow that bud of wisdom to exfoliate, although the significant point in this context is that at the time of writing I was not aware of the proverbial structure at the back of my mind. . . .