Driving through the early spring desert, I listen to my sister reading poems to me slowly and carefully, not to lose a syllable in the high-speed static of motion. She has been recently transformed by poetry, lying back in the lines and letting herself go at the edge of the known world.
I'm going through my own poetic immersion, riding shutgun with some 500 poems of the winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, Seamus Heaney. Heaney makes me acutely aware of my latent Irish ancestry, evoking a countryside and a people I know only in my blood. It doesn't take much exposure to him, however, to understand how much more he is than Londonderry's favorite son. Whether in the illuminating recasting of our most essential existence or in the hallowed ringing of bells in the temple of our inner ear, Heaney unearths a world for us, opening up the very ground on which we stand.
Heaney was born in 1939 in County Derry, Northern Ireland, growing up on what he calls "a traditional thatched farmstead ... more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world." In his 1995 Nobel Lecture, "Crediting Poetry," Heaney recalls the early memories of his childhood attentiveness to his immediate environment. "It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other," he writes. "We took in everything that was going on, of course--rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house--but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation."
The bogs and marshes of Northern Ireland were second nature to him, and his fascination with the natural world ran stride-for-stride along his love of storytelling. He recalls those youthful days during the war when he approached the family radio as though listening to the sacred.
"I would climb up on an arm of our big sofa to get my ear closer to the wireless speaker. But it was still not the news that interested me; what I was after was the thrill of story." And when he turned his attention from the radio to the written word, his ear was caught by the poetry of John Keats, whose "To Autumn" Heaney credits as "an ark of the covenant between language and sensation," of Gerard Manley Hopkins "for the intensity of his exclamations, which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn't fully know I knew until I read him;" and of Robert Frost "for his farmer's accuracy and his wily down-to-earthness."
His earliest poems are filled with images from the farms that surrounded him and from the natural world he ventured into with the carefree abandon and curiosity of a boy naturalist. In the '60s his work fit his tongue-in-check definition of "fetishing the local," a detailed cartography of the landscape, a mapping out of the "outback of my mind," drawing on images of his own exploratory fieldwork replete with bleached bones and murky bogs emerging from the raw, opened ground.
His first published book of poems, The Death of the Naturalist, came at the age of 27. He has published fourteen books of poetry in all, including four collections of his own work. He has also published three books of criticism; one play adapted from Sophocles; a collection of essays on Robert Frost co-authored with Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott; his new, widely acclaimed translation of Beowulf; and a recently released collection of poems translated from Czech, Diary of One Who Vanished.
As Heaney's stature as a poet grew, so too did the pressure to widen his scope and his sense of his immediate environment. He is deeply immersed in Irish tradition and in the legacy of the writers who came before him, and as he matured both personally and professionally, his work reflected the political landscape of Ireland in the '70s, increasingly turning his focus to human nature, to conflict and war, and introducing the "enemy" with the "toothed efficiency of a mowing machine."
He described this evolution in his Nobel Lecture as an adaptation to "having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of ongoing political violence and public expectation. A public expectation, it has to be said, not of poetry as such but of political positions variously approvable by mutually disapproving groups."
His work aspires to the challenge of Archibald MacLeish, who declared "A poem should be equal to/not true." Yet in order to satisfy his own penchant for "shocking myself with a thought I had," Heaney enlarges the call of poetry, searching for the compelling and surprising variation on the truths and realities of the world. "We want the surprise to be transitive," he explains his Nobel Lecture, "like the impatient thump which unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set, or the electric shock which sets the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm," finally defining poetry as an order "true to the impact of external reality and ... sensitive to the inner laws of the poet's being."
But among those inner laws is the acknowledgement of the transitive power of language itself, of "vowels plowing into each other" and the image of the future as "a verb in hibernation." Lyric poetry calls into being the "temple inside our hearing," Heaney tells us. "It has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem's concerns or the poet's truthfulness."
His 1984 poem "Station Island," a 12-part sequence of dream encounters dealing with pilgrims to County Donegal performing the penitential exercises, provides a vivid example of this lyric quality in the following schoolboy passage from section VI:
Freckle-face, fox-head, pod of the broom,
Catkin-pixie, little fern-swish:
Where did she arrive from?
Like a wish wished
And gone, her I chose at 'secrets'
And whispered to. When we were playing houses.
I was sunstruck at the basilica door--
A stillness far away, a space, a dish,
A blackened tin and knocked-over stool--
Like a tramped Neolithic floor
Uncovered among dunes where the bent grass
Whispers on like reeds about Midas's
Secrets, secrets. I shut my ears to the bell.
Head hugged. Eyes shut. Leaf ears. Don't tell. Don't tell.
"Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor," Heaney tells us. "It is at once a buoyancy and a holding, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and centripetal in mind and body." Springs enthusiasts will have the rare chance to experience these qualities for themselves when Heaney lowers his anchor and sets sail in Shove Chapel Monday.
The Railway Children
When we climbed the slopes of the cutting
We were eye-level with the white cups
Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.
Like lovely freehand they curved for miles
East and miles west beyond us, sagging
Under their burden of swallows.
We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words traveled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,
Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled
We could stream through the eye of a needle.
-- Seamus Heaney, from
"Station Island" (1984)