(1939 - )
born on April 13, 1939, the eldest of nine children, to Margaret and Patrick
Heaney, at the family farm, Mossbawn, about 30 miles northwest of Belfast in
County Derry. He attended the local school at Anahorish until 1957, when he
enrolled at Queen's College, Belfast and took a first in English there in 1961.
The next school year he took a teacher's certificate in English at St. Joseph's
College in Belfast. In 1963 he took a position as a lecturer in English at the
St. Joseph's he began to write, publishing work in the university magazines
under the pseudonym Incertus. During that time, along with Derek Mahon, Michael
Longley, and others, he joined a poetry workshop under the guidance of Philip
Hobsbaum. In 1965, in connection with the Belfast Festival, he published Eleven
Poems. In August of 1965 he married Marie Devlin. The following year he became a
lecturer in modern English literature at Queen's College, Belfast, his first son
Michael was born, and Faber and Faber published Death of a Naturalist. This
volume earned him the E.C. Gregory Award, the Cholmondeley Award in 1967, the
Somerset Maugham Award in 1968, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, also in
1968. Christopher, his second son, was born in 1968.
volume, Door into the Dark, was published in 1969 and became the Poetry Book
Society Choice for the year. In 1970-71 he was a guest lecturer at the
University of California, Berkeley. He returned to Northern Ireland in 1971, and
in 1972 he resigned his lecturship at Queens College, moved his family to
Glanmore, in County Wicklow, and published Wintering Out. In 1973 his daughter,
Catherine Ann, was born. During this year he also received the Denis Devlin
Award and the Writer in Residence Award from the American Irish Foundation. In
1975 North was published, winning the E.M. Forster Award and the Duff Cooper
Memorial Prize. During these years at Glanmore, Heaney also gave many readings
in the United States and England and edited two poetry anthologies.
Heaney began teaching at Carysfort College in Dublin. In 1976 the family moved
to Sandymount, in Dublin, and Heaney became Department Head at Carysfort. In
1979 he published Field Work, and in 1980, Selected Poems and Preoccupations:
Selected Prose. In 1981 he gave up his post at Carysfort to become a visiting
professor at Harvard. In 1982 he won the Bennett Award, and Queen's University
in Belfast conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. He cofounded
Field Day Publishing with Brian Friel and others in 1983. Station Island, his
first collection in five years, was published in 1984. During that year he was
elected the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, and Open
University awarded him an honorary degree. Also in 1984 his mother, Margaret
Kathleen, died. The Haw Lantern, published in 1987, contains a brilliant sonnet
sequence memorializing her. Heaney's father, Patrick, died after this, and
Heaney's latest collection, Seeing Things, published in 1991, contains many
poems for his father.
Lowell has deemed Heaney "the most important Irish poet since Yeats."
Critics have been largely positive about his verse, and he is undoubtedly the
most popular poet writing in English today. His books sell by the tens of
thousands, and hundreds of "Heaneyboppers" attend his readings. His
earliest influences, Robert Frost and Ted Hughes, can be seen throughout his
work, but most especially in his first two volumes, where he recollects images
of his childhood at Mossbawn. Other poets, especially Gerard Manley Hopkins,
William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, and even Dante have played important roles in
poem in this archive, "Personal Helicon," introduces an abiding
interest, a concern for that which lies deep within the earth. It is dedicated
to Michael Longley, another member of Hobsbaum's group. Mount Helicon is a
mountain in Greece, that was, in classical mythology, sacred to Apollo and the
Muses. From it flowed two fountains of poetic inspiration. Heaney is here
presenting his own source of inspiration, the "dark drop" into
personal and cultural memory, made present by the depths of the wells of his
childhood. Now, as a man, he is too mature to scramble about on hands and knees,
looking into the deep places of the earth, but he has his poetry. This serves as
his glimpse into places where "there is no reflection," but only the
sound of a rhyme, like a bucket, setting "the darkness echoing." This
is the final poem in his first volume, and, together with his first poem in that
volume, "Digging," acts as a bookend to the collection, utilizing this
the final poem in his second volume, presents once again his fascination with
things buried. He acknowledges an attachment to the soil that is the source and
subject of his poetry. The catalog of objects, buried in bogs for years,
sometimes centuries, and dug up in remarkable condition, encompasses the
vegetable world ("waterlogged trunks / of great firs"), the animal
world ("the skeleton / of the Great Irish Elk"), and the human world
("Butter sunk under / More than a hundred years"). Perhaps with
hindsight we see a progression toward the bog's most important preservation, a
the publication of P.V. Glob's The Bog People, detailing the discovery of a
series of bodies over 2000 years old in the bogs of Denmark, Heaney's metaphor,
begun in "Bogland," reaches its ultimate fruition. In Glob's book,
Heaney found the consummation of his descent into the earth. His series of
"Bog Poems" (including "The Tollund Man") address, through a
study of these victims of tribal sacrifice and punishment, the political and
social situation in his native Northern Ireland. Heaney's fascination with the
past allows him to comment on the present in an oblique yet forceful way.
Perhaps the most striking of these poems is "Punishment," where he
sees in the corpse of a ritually sacrificed woman an echo of the Catholic women
in Northern Ireland who are tarred and chained to their front porches for dating
British soldiers. He acknowledges his guilt for implicit participation in such
terrible deeds, because he "would have cast, I know / the stones of silence."
He recognizes his own conflicting feelings, this man
who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
tribal, intimate revenge.
critics have placed Heaney in a no-win situation; he is condemned either for
confronting too strongly the situation in his homeland, or taken to task for
remaining aloof from it. Nevertheless, some of his most convincing elegies deal
with friends and family he has lost to the Troubles. "Casualty," a
poem about a Catholic friend murdered by a bomb set by the Provisional Irish
Republican Army in a Protestant pub, gives us another look at the tribal warfare
in Northern Ireland. His questioning of his friend's responsibility for his own
death realizes the ambiguous nature, the muddling of right and wrong, that grips
Northern Ireland today. And yet, what is important is not placing blame, but the
recognition of what remains to those who live, memories and sadness.
It is easy
to get the impression that Heaney is a provincial poet, concerned only with the
happenings of his island and his memory. That conclusion, however, would be
misleading. He is not merely a one-note minstrel; his birthplace does not
completely occupy his mind. "Song" demonstrates his exploration of the
poetic process. Like "Digging" and "Personal Helicon," this
short lyric attends to his own imagination. His descriptive powers are akin to
Wordsworth's, and his attention to the world around him and the details of
language make this poem a small success.
Bow," a touching look at his father's creative impulse, also addresses
Heaney's own art. The poem rests on the recognition that there are more
important creations than the ordering of words. Rather than being merely a
recollection of childhood, this poem takes on universal weight in the
intertwining of the artistic forces in father and son. Heaney presents the
mature relationship of a child with his or her parents, the unspoken joy of a
shared experience. His recognition of his father's different talents leads to a
consideration of his own work, like his father's a "frail device." Be
it a harvest bow or a formal elegy, "The end of art is peace." Further
explorations of Heaney's thoughts on his own poetry can be found in his two
collections of essays, the previously mentioned Preoccupations and The
Government of the Tongue. He is an insightful critic of both the Romantic
tradition and the poetry of the twentieth century.
his most moving works are the series of sonnets called "Clearances,"
written as a memorial to his mother. The two poems we have here, the third and
fifth of the sequence, show him taking firm hold of the sonnet form and bending
it to his own interpretation of the elegaic tradition. These poems possess a
soft power that bathes all in the golden haze of memory while presenting stark
images of the spaces that death leaves between us. In "When all the others
were away at Mass" Heaney moves from the distant past of the first two
quatrains, through a telling break in lines, the into a place nearer the present
in the final quatrain. But this present reality is too much to bear, and he
retreats again to the past in the final couplet. In this way memory serves as a
shield to protect him from his mother's death. "The cool that came off
sheets just off the line" takes place entirely in the past, as he recalls
the intricate dance he and his mother performed in folding bed linens. His
comment on their relationship, "Coming close while again holding back,"
speaks to a lifetime of memories, and the space that her absence leaves in his
poems here, from "Lightenings," take up again thoughts of death, the
afterlife, and other planes of existence. The structure of these poems, with
their three-line stanzas, recalls Dante's Divine Comedy, where the poet as
pilgrim is guided through the afterlife. Heaney has remarked that, since the
death of his parents, he feels as if "the roof has blown off" his life.
We are all inevitably relased from both the weight and the shield of our
ancestors. This lightening, when we are finally exposed to the elements, to the
cosmos, is both freeing and frightening. The first poem acknowledges the
transience of life, framing death in the religious terms of the particular and
universal judgements that come at the end of an individual life and the end of
the world. Recognition of the fact that "there is no next-time-round"
carries with it a mixture of fear and freedom.
discusses that mixture again in the Hardy lyrics, and explores the questions
that the nearness of death brings. Hardy pretends to be dead in "vi,"
and, being dead, "He experimented with infinity." He claims that the
recognition of death is a necessary act for a poet, for it alone opens the poet
up to what the universe has to say. In "vii" Heaney admits to the
frailty of memory, a fragility that makes what is remembered all the more dear.
Hardy's communion with the frightened sheep holds the anticipated sorrow that
would later fill his poetry at bay for a moment. Again, the nearness of death,
or, for Hardy, the pretending to be dead, is an essential component, if not the
ultimate font, of poetry. The final poem here ends on a life-affirming note, for
Heaney recognizes the beauty of earthly existence, placing that beauty in a
religious context that not only enhances it, but holds out hope for more wonders
to come after death.
work is filled with images of death and dying, and yet it is also firmly rooted
in the life of this world. His tender elegies about friends and family members
who have died serve many purposes: they mourn great losses, celebrate those who
have gone before us, and recall the solace that remains to us, our memories.
When asked recently about his abiding interest in memorializing the people of
his life, he replied, "The elegaic Heaney? There's nothing else."
* A Boy Driving His Father to
Confession / Farnham, Surrey: The Sceptre Press, c1970.
* A Lough Neagh Sequence /
Didsbury, Manchester [Lancashire]: Phoenix Pamphlet Poets Press, 1969.
* A Personal Selection: August
20-October 24, 1982 / Belfast: Ulster Museum, 1982.
* After Summer / illustrations by
Timothy Engelland. Old Deerfield, Mass.: Deerfield Press, c1978.
* Among Schoolchildren: A Lecture
Dedicated to the Memory of John Malone / [Belfast]: John Malone Memorial
* An Open Letter / Derry: Field
Day Theatre Company, 1983.
* Arvon Foundation Poetry
Competition: 1980 Anthology / edited and introduced by Ted Hughes and Seamus
Heaney. Todmorden (Lancashire): Kilnhurst Pub. Co., .
* Bog Poems / illustrated by
Barrie Cooke. London: Rainbow Press, 1975.
* Death of a Naturalist / London:
Faber and Faber, [c1966].
* Door Into the Dark / London,
Faber and Faber, 1969
* Eleven Poems / Belfast: Queen's
University of Belfast, 1965.
* Field Work / London; Boston:
Faber and Faber, 1979.
* Gravities: A Collection of
Poems and Drawings / Seamus Heaney, Noel Connor. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Charlotte
Press Publications, 1979.
* Hailstones / Dublin, Ireland:
Gallery Press, 1984.
* Hedge School: Sonnets from
Glanmore / with colour woodcuts by Claire Van Vliet. Salem, Ore. (Postbox 12367,
Salem, Ore. 97301): C. Seluzicki, 1979.
* In Their Element: A Selection
of Poems / by Seamus Heaney & Derek Mahon. [Belfast: Arts Council of
Northern Ireland, 1977].
* Iron Spike / Concord, N.H.:
William B. Ewert, 1992.
* Land / [London]:
Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1971.
* Mint / Concord, N.H.: William
B. Ewert, 1991.
* New Selected Poems, 1966-1987 /
London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
* Night Drive / Crediton, Devon:
Richard Gilbertson, .
* North / Seamus Heaney. London:
Faber and Faber, 1975.
* Place and Displacement: Recent
Poetry of Northern Ireland / Seamus Heaney
* Poems and a Memoir / Seamus
Heaney; selected and illustrated by Henry Pearson with an introduction by Thomas
Flanagan and a preface by Seamus Heaney. New York: Limited Editions Club, c1982
([Hadley, Mass.]: Wild Carrot Letterpress).
* Poems, 1965-1975 / New York:
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, c1980.
* Preoccupations: Selected Prose,
1968-1978 / New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, c1980.
* Remembering Malibu / Claremont,
Calif.: Scripps College Press, c1983.
* Responses / London: National
Book League; Poetry Society, 1971
* Robert Lowell: A Memorial
Address and an Elegy / London ; Boston: Privately printed by Faber and Faber,
* Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin /
introductions by Craig Raine. London: Faber and Faber, c1983. (Audio tape)
* Seamus Heaney at Harvard :
Heaney Reads His Own Poems / [Cambridge, MA]: Poetry Room, Harvard College
Library, p1990. (Audio tape)
* Seeing Things / New York:
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.
* Selected Poems, 1965-1975 /
London; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1980.
* Servant Boy / Detroit: The Red
Hanrahan Press, 1971.
* Station Island / London;
Boston: Faber and Faber, 1984.
* Stations / [Belfast]: Ulsterman
* Sweeney Astray: A Version from
the Irish / Derry: Field Day Theatre Company, 1983.
* Sweeney Praises the Trees /
illustrated by Henry Pearson. New York: [s.n.], 1981
* Sweeney's Flight: Based on the
Revised Text of "Sweeney Astray": with the Complete Revised Text of
"Sweeney Astray" / with photographs by Rachel Giese. London: Faber and
* The Cure at Troy: A Version of
Sophocles' Philoctetes / London: Faber and Faber in association with Field Day,
* The Essential Wordsworth /
selected and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney. 1st ed. New York: Ecco Press,
* The Fire i' the Flint:
Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. / London: Oxford University
* The Government of the Tongue:
the 1986 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings / London:
Faber and Faber, 1988.
* The Gravel Walks / Hickory,
N.C.: Lenoir Rhyne College,1992. ([s.l.]: Shadowy Waters Press).
* The Haw Lantern / New York:
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1987.
* The Makings of a Music:
Reflections on the Poetry of Wordsworth and Yeats / delivered on 9 February,
1978 [Liverpool, Eng.]: University of Liverpool, 1978.
* The Place of Writing / with an
introduction by Ronald Schuchard. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, [c1989].
* The Rattle Bag / edited by
Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. London; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1982 (1984
* The Redress of Poetry: An
Inaugural Lecture Delivered Before the University of Oxford on 24 October, 1989
/ Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
* The Sounds of Rain / [Atlanta]:
Emory University, c1988 ([s.l.]: Shadowy Waters Press).
* The Tree Clock / Belfast: Linen
Hall Library, 1990.
* Ugolino / with 2 lithographs by
Louis Le Brocquy. Dublin: A. Carpenter, 1979.
* Verses for a Fordham
Commencement / New York (2651/2 West 94 St., New York, 10025): Nadja, c1984.
* Wintering Out / London: Faber
and Faber, 1972.
for Michael Longley
As a child, they could not keep
me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and
I loved the dark drop, the
trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank
One, in a brickyard, with a
rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a
Plummeted down at the end of a
So deep you saw no reflection in
A shallow one under a dry stone
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots
from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the
Others had echoes, gave back your
With a clean new music in it. And
Was scaresome, for there, out of
ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across
Now, to pry into roots, to finger
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus,
into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I
To see myself, to set the
Em criança, que ninguém me tirasse os poços
De um, numa fábrica, sob tábuas podres,
Menos fundo, à sombra de um talude,
Outros tinham ecos, devolviam-nos a voz
perscrutar raízes, pôr a mão na lama,
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening -
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.
They've taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter
Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They'll never dig coal here,
Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic
The wet centre is bottomless.
Não temos pradarias
Que golpeiem um sol grande ao entardecer –
Por todo o lado a vista cede a
À sedução do olhar ciclópico
De uma lagoa. O nosso território sem limites
É a turfeira, que vai encrostando
Entre vislumbres de sol.
Encontraram o esqueleto
Do Grande Alce Irlandês
Na turfa, e ergueram-no,
Espantoso cabaz cheio de ar.
Por mais de cem anos
Foi achada branca e salgada.
A própria terra é manteiga negra e generosa
Derretendo e abrindo sob os pés,
Falhando o seu estádio último
Por milhões de anos de diferença.
Carvão, nunca o hão-de escavar aqui,
Apenas os troncos encharcados
De grandes abetos, macios, pastosos.
Os nossos pioneiros perseveram
Para dentro e para baixo,
Cada estrato que desnuda,
Tem marcas de incursões anteriores.
Serão os atoleiros escoadouros do Atlântico?
Não tem fundo, o centro húmido. (**)
The Tollund Man
O Homem de Tollund
Um dia hei-de ir a Aarhus
ver-lhe a cabeça cor de terra muito escura,
a vagem leve de suas pálpebras,
o seu gorro pontudo de pele.
No país plano por ali
onde o tiraram cá para fora,
a sua última papa de sementes
de inverno inteiriçada no estômago.
Nu excepto pelo
gorro, nó corredio e cinto.
Ficarei muito tempo,
Noivo da deusa,
ela apertou-lhe os torques
e abriu o seu pântano,
esses escuros sucos trabalhando-
-o para o corpo poupado de um santo,
achado dos trabalhos
em alvéolos de cortadores de turfa.
Agora a sua face escurecida
repousa em Aarhus.
Eu podia arriscar a blasfémia,
consagrar o pântano-caldeira
nosso chão sagrado e rezar-lhe
para que faça germinar
a dispersa, emboscada
carne dos trabalhadores,
corpos de meias enfiadas
estirados nos quinteiros.
a pele reveladora e dentes
manchando os dormentes
de quatro irmão jovens arrastados
milhas ao longo da linha.
Algo da sua triste liberdade
quando ele ia de carreta
devia vir até mim, que guio
dizendo os nomes
Tollund, Grabaulle, Nebelgard,
olhando os dedos em riste
da gente do campo,
sem conhecer-lhe a língua.
Lá fora na Jutlândia
nas velhas paróquias que matam,
vou sentir-me perdido,
infeliz e em casa. (*)
He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice,
Or order a quick stout
By a lifting of the eyes
And a discreet dumb-show
Of pulling off the top;
At closing time would go
In waders and peaked cap
Into the showery dark,
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.
I loved his whole manner,
Sure-footed but too sly,
His deadpan sidling tact,
His fisherman's quick eye
And turned observant back.
To him, my other life.
Sometimes on the high stool,
Too busy with his knife
At a tobacco plug
And not meeting my eye,
In the pause after a slug
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And, always politic
And shy of condescension,
I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.
But my tentative art
His turned back watches too:
He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
Others obeyed, three nights
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in Derry.
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
His breath and trembled.
It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
Surplice and soutane:
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its swaddling band,
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.
But he would not be held
At home by his own crowd
Whatever threats were phoned,
Whatever black flags waved.
I see him as he turned
In that bombed offending place,
Remorse fused with terror
In his still knowable face,
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.
He had gone miles away
For he drank like a fish
Swimming towards the lure
Of warm lit-up places,
The blurred mesh and murmur
Drifting among glasses
In the gregarious smoke.
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe's complicity?
'Now, you're supposed to be
An educated man,'
I hear him say. 'Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.'
I missed his funeral,
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse...
They move in equal pace
With the habitual
Of a dawdling engine,
The line lifted, hand
Over fist, cold sunshine
On the water, the land
Banked under fog: that morning
I was taken in his boat,
The screw purling, turning
Indolent fathoms white,
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond...
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.
Bebia sempre sozinho,
E p’ra pedir mais um rum
Com groselha, nem falava,
Mais não tinha que apontar
Um calejado polegar
P’rá prateleira de cima;
P’ra uma garrafa preta,
Era um leve erguer dos olhos
E uma mímica discreta
De quem arrancava a cápsula;
Ao fechar, lá ia ele,
Botas de pesca e boné,
P’rá escuridão aguacenta,
Vivendo do desemprego,
Mas devotado ao trabalho.
Eu adorava o seu trato,
Confiante mas manhoso,
O seu impassível tacto,
Como quem não quer a coisa,
Olho vivo de pescador,
Atento mesmo de costas.
Incompreensível, p’ra ele,
Essa minha outra vida.
Por vezes, num banco alto,
Ocupado com a faca
Num pedaço de tabaco,
Sem os olhos se encontrarem,
Numa pausa após um trago
Mencionava a poesia.
Estávamos sós ele e eu
E, sempre com cortesia,
Fugindo à condescendência,
Eu desviava a conversa,
Voltava a falar de enguias
Ou carroças e arreios,
Ou do IRA Provisório.
Mas est’arte de cautelas
Não se evade ao escrutínio
Das suas costas atentas:
Uma explosão fê-lo em estilhas
Quando bebia, uma noite –
Que outros cumpriram e ele não,
Três noites depois da morte
Dos treze homens em Derry.
Proclamavam as paredes:
PARAS 13, BOGSIDE 0.
Na Quarta-feira, ninguém
Respirava, só tremia.
Era um dia de silêncio
Cru e frio, dava o vento
Em sotaina e paramentos:
Sob a chuva e muitas flores,
Da catedral apinhada
Um caixão após o outro
Como flores em água calma.
O funeral colectivo
Desfraldou a sua faixa
Pondo-nos firmes, unidos
Como irmãos em aliança.
Mas ele não permitiria
Que sua própria gente –
Içando bandeiras negras –
O prendesse em sua casa.
Estou a vê-lo a virar-se –
Naquele lugar que explodiu
Porque as regras ofendeu –
Remorso e terror unidos
No seu rosto consciente,
O olhar cego pelo clarão.
Ele tinha andado quilómetros
P’ra poder cumprir o hábito
De beber, todas as noites,
Como um peixe que nadasse
Atraído por lugares
Quentes, bem iluminados,
Qual rede vaga, o murmúrio
W a deriva entre copos
No véu gregário do fumo.
Qual foi então o seu crime
Naquela noite, ao romper
Conluios da nossa tribo?
“Diz-se que és um homem culto” –
Pareço ouvi-lo dizer –
“Descobre lá a resposta
P’ra esta, se faz favor”.
Faltei ao seu funeral,
A caminhada em silêncio
Com conversas laterais,
Saindo como um cardume
No andamento respeitável
Da marcha do carro fúnebre…
Movem-se ao mesmo ritmo
Do consolo habitual,
Lento, de um motor ronceiro,
A linha lançada, a mão
Sobre o pulso, a luz do sol
Fria sobre a água, a terra
Oculta p’la névoa: aquela
Manhã em que ele me levou
No barco, as voltas da hélice
Pondo em espuma as águas plácidas,
Saboreei a liberdade
Com ele. Sair bem cedo,
Puxar as redes, dizer
Mal do pescado, e sorrir
Enquanto se encontra um ritmo
Que nos leva, milha a milha,
Lentamente ao encontro
Do lugar que nos é próprio
Algures, bem longe, além…
Fantasma que vens farejar a madrugada,
Caminhante enfrentando a chuva pela noite,
Interroga-me de novo. (**)
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.
Uma sorveira como uma rapariga com bâton,
Entre a estrada secundária e a principal
Os freixos mantêm uma distância húmida
E gotejante, por entre os juncos.
Há as flores humildes do dialecto
E as perpétuas de tom perfeito
E aquele momento em que a ave canta muito perto
Da música do que acontece. (**)
The Harvest Bow
As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.
Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
Harked to their gift and worked with fine intent
Until your fingers moved somnambulant:
I tell and finger it like braille,
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable,
And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall--
You with a harvest bow in your lapel,
Me with the fishing rod, already homesick
For the big lift of these evenings, as your stick
Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes
Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes
Nothing: that original townland
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.
The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser--
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.
A Laçada da Colheita
Quando deste a laçada da colheita
maduro o teu silêncio insinuou-se
em trigo que não ganha ferrugem
mas que ao apertar-se volta a volta reluz
a ganhar forma numa coroa,
de palha um nó de amor descartável.
Mãos a que varas de freixo deram calos
e espicaçaram uma vida de combate de galos
que sabiam seus dons e certeiras labutaram
até sonâmbulos os teus dedos se moverem:
digo-o e nos dedos como braille o sinto,
respigando do palpável o não dito,
e se espreito pelas laçadas de ouro, eis
nos vejo a ir entre dormentes e carris
por uma tarde de mosquitos e altas hastes,
fumo azul a subir, sebes com arados, velhos trastes,
um anúncio de leilão na parede do anexo –
tu, com uma laçada da colheita na lapela,
eu com a cana de pesca, já de saudades cheio
do grande gozo dessas tardes, e a tua vara que veio
ceifando pontas de ervas e de arbustos bate
fora do tempo, e bate, sem que salte
nada: esse recanto originário, de língua que ficou
ainda atada na palha que a tua mão atou.
O fim da tarde é a paz
podia ser o mote que esta coisa frágil traz
e no armário de pinho pus pregado –
como um laço armado
que ao espírito do grão há pouco deu contorno
mas brunido pela sua passagem, ainda morno. (*)
From Clearances - 3
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other's work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives--
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
Soneto 3 de Clearances
Quando todos à missa tinham ido,
eu era todo dela a descascar batatas.
Quebravam o silêncio, uma a uma caindo
como gotas de solda do ferro de soldar.
Frios confortos entre nós, coisas partilháveis
luzentes na água limpa do alguidar.
E caindo outra vez. Chape-chapes agradáveis
da tarefa de cada um para nos despertar.
Assim, quando o pároco à cabeceira dela vinha
e resmoneava as orações dos moribundos
e alguns respondiam e choravam alguns,
lembrou-me a sua cabeça inclinada para a minha,
o respirar confundido, as ágeis facas movidas –
Nunca tão perto em tudo o mais das nossas vidas. (*)
From Clearances - 5
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
The cool that came off the sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we'd stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
Inscribed in sheets she'd sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.
Soneto 5 de Clearances (“Clareiras”)
A frescura dos lençóis retirados do arame
Fazia-me crer que ainda estariam húmidos,
Mas quando segurava os meus cantos do pano
E os levava até ela, ao longo da bainha
E depois na diagonal, e sacudia
O tecido como vela em vento cruzado,
Ouvia-se um som ondulante e enxuto.
Esticávamos e dobrávamos, terminando
Mão contra mão, num segundo, como se nada
Tivesse ocorrido – nada que não tivesse
Sempre ocorrido, dia-a-dia, em breves
Encontros que nos juntavam, retraídos,
Em jogadas em que eu era X e ela 0, inscritas
Nos lençóis que ela fizera de sacas de farinha. (**)
Soneto 7 de Clearances
Ele disse-lhe mais nos últimos minutos
quase, do que em toda a vida de ambos juntos.
Estará na Nova Álea na segunda que vem,
virei ter contido e hás-de alegrar-te quando eu
passar a porta… Assim já achas bem?
Inclinou a cabeça sobre a dela que soergueu.
Ela não ouvia mas nós sentimos júbilo.
E ele chamava-lhe boa menina. E então ela morreu,
a batida do pulso deixou de procurar-se
e a todos, estando ali, algo ocorreu.
O espaço que rodeávamos ficou a esvaziar-se
para dentro de nós o mantermos e penetrava certas
clareiras subitamente abertas.
Alto choro se ouviu e uma pura mudança aconteceu. (*)
(*)Seamus Heaney, Prémio Nobel de Literatura, Antologia Poética. Selecção e Tradução de Vasco Graça Moura. Campo das Letras, Porto, 1998. ISBN 972-610-097-6
(**) Seamus Heaney, Da Terra à Luz, Poemas 1966 – 1987. Tradução, Prefácio e Notas de Rui de Carvalho Homem, Relógio de Água, Lisboa, 1997, ISBN 972-708-327-7
I can feel
I can see
I who have
Consigo sentir o esticão
do laço na sua nuca,
o sopro do vento
na sua frente nua
tornando-lhe os mamilos
em contas de âmbar,
sacudindo-lhe o cordame frágil
Consigo ver o corpo dela
no pântano, afogado,
a pedra de fazer peso
as varas e os ramos a boiar.
Sob os quais, a princípio,
ela era um rebento de árvore sem casca
que é desenterrado,
osso de carvalho, cérebro de barril:
a cabeça rapada
como um restolho de trigo preto,
a venda dos olhos como suja ligadura,
o laço como um anel
as memórias do amor.
antes de te castigarem
eras de cabelo cor de palha,
subalimentada, e era belo
o teu rosto negro de pez.
Meu pobre bode expiatório,
Quase que te amo,
mas teria lançado, eu sei,
as pedras do silêncio.
Eu sou o engenhoso voyeur
Dos favos enegrecidos
e expostos do teu cérebro,
da trama dos teus músculos
e de todos os teus ossos numerados:
Eu, que fiquei mudo
quando as irmãs que te traíram,
de coifa em breu,
choraram junto ao parapeito,
eu, que seria conivente
com a civilizada afrinta,
e contudo entendo a vingança
exacta, íntima, tribal.
Tradução de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS, poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993. ISBN 972-708-204-1
Published: 24 April 2012
Seamus Heaney’s later poems have turned more and more towards an exploration of mortality and spiritual matters. In the volumes The Spirit Level (1996), District and Circle (2006) and his most recent, The Human Chain (2010), he questions the role of the mind in creating or undoing a sense of self, using language that is earthy, palpable and evocative of his native County Derry. As Brad Leithauser wrote in his review of District and Circle in the New York Times, “his is the gift of saying something extraordinary while, line by line, conveying a sense that this is something an ordinary person might say”.
Heaney’s poems build slowly, drawing readers into meditations on existence, loss and memory. “A Small Fantasia for W. B.” is composed of a series of questions – a sort of litany – expressing the speaker’s doubt in the powers of human creation (“Things remembered, made things”) to reassure us. As uncertainty grows, we wonder whether anything manmade can contain “spirit”; does it live in nature alone – in “the seabird’s cry” and the “jackdaw’s nest”? Heaney pits what we assume will be our most enduring works – the “stone tower” and “marble bust” – against the intangible and uncontrollable “windy light”. What the speaker means by “spirit” is perhaps a belief in God or the “soul”, which he implies, with a stanza break, is only “imagined”. But this interrogation of faith offers, perhaps, a kind of “reassurance”, too: humans continue to find comfort and pleasure in the “held note or held line”; we return to songs and poems again and again in spite of our doubts.
Small Fantasia for W. B.
Where does spirit live? Inside or outside
Things remembered, made things, things unmade?
What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul
Imagined in the dawn cold when it cried?
Where does it roost at last? On dungy sticks
In a jackdaw’s nest up in some old stone tower
Or a marble bust commanding the parterre?
How habitable is perfected form?
And how inhabited the windy light?
What was learned from the midwife and the hangman?
What’s the use of a held note or held line
That cannot be assailed for reassurance?
SEAMUS HEANEY (1989)
By Mary Karr
Sunday, January 25, 2009; BW12
This winter I heard Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney recite to a packed crowd an early poem that's among his most celebrated. "Digging" starts off tracing the poet's break from his sod-cutting father in Northern Ireland. The pen he holds as a gun in the opening lines suggests Heaney is a kind of stickup man at first, taking aim at his father for doing undignified work, which Heaney must "look down" on. And though digging makes "a clean rasping sound," the old man is a comic, almost feminized figure, "his straining rump among the flowerbeds."
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.
My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
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.
While city folk have the privilege of romanticizing field work from afar, anybody who's done it understands Heaney's flight into writing. The penultimate stanza reeks of labor's decay (mould and squelch), but work is inescapable. As "living roots awaken in my head," the memory of that work sends green shoots into the pen he holds. For this reader (bred herself to plod behind a plow), seeing the two jobs conflate is poetic alchemy.
"Digging" is from Seamus Heaney's "Poems: 1966-1996" (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998). Mary Karr has published four books of poems, most recently "Sinners Welcome."
PÚBLICO ,28 de Maio de 2001
"A poesia pára o tempo por um segundo"
Entrevista com Seamus Heaney
Nobel da Literatura em 1995, Seamus Heaney, nascido irlandês do norte, nacionalista e católico, acredita que o objectivo da arte, da poesia é, de alguma forma, reparar o que está danificado. Sem fronteiras de identidade. Recorda a vitalidade de Ted Hughes - "era como estar na mesma sala com um jovem cavalo" -, destaca a sabedoria do polaco Czeslaw Milosz, e anuncia como falará de Alberto Caeiro (esse "pastor louco") numa próxima conferência em Cambridge. Alexandra Lucas Coelho (texto), Mário Marques (fotos).
Dizem deste homem grande e risonho (os olhos, muito vivos, riem, quando ele ri), que é o mais importante poeta irlandês desde Yeats. É seguramente o mais popular poeta vivo de língua inglesa. A Academia sueca deu-lhe o Nobel da Literatura em 1995. Ele agradeceu, com um texto límpido, magnífico, onde coube a Irlanda rural, raiz da sua infância - uma quinta nos arredores de Belfast, uma calorosa família de nove irmãos muito unidos em torno do pai e da mãe, figuras presentes em toda a sua poesia -, e uma crença inquebrável na força da poesia como tradução do mundo.
Nasceu, há 62 anos, irlandês do norte, nacionalista, católico. Esse é o seu centro, de onde partiu para a descoberta que havia uma Inglaterra escondida dentro dele, como havia uma Grécia ou um Mediterrâneo, porque "cada criatura tem uma estação receptora que pode receber quase tudo, desde que não lhe imponham barreiras". Também por isso lhe deu muito prazer concluir, há três anos, o desafio de traduzir "Beowulf", narrativa heróica da tradição anglo-saxónica, composta algures entre o século VII e X. O que levou a que o prestigiado prémio britânico Whitbread para Livro do Ano de 1999 fosse atribuído a este irlandês do norte, que tanto lutou - escrevendo - contra a intransigência de Londres nos piores anos do conflito irlandês.
"Electric Lights", o seu décimo livro de poemas originais desde a obra de estreia, "A Morte de um Naturalista" (1966), saiu recentemente na Faber, e estava esta semana disponível em algumas livrarias portuguesas, atentas à passagem do poeta pelo Porto, onde participou, quarta-feira, no Encontro Europeu de Poetas. Uma viagem possível pela sua obra, em português, é a "Antologia Poética", com selecção e tradução de Vasco Graça Moura, que está editada na Campo das Letras.
PÚBLICO - No seu discurso de aceitação do Prémio Nobel, honra a poesia por ser uma ajuda, ao tornar possível uma relação redentora entre o espírito e o que está à sua volta. Como pode a poesia realmente ajudar, não só o poeta, mas quem o lê?
SEAMUS HEANEY - A poesia ajuda, ao representar verdadeiramente o que está errado, a perturbação que está a ser sofrida, a forma que a tristeza tem. Esse sentido de apaziguamento, pela representação do que está mal, ajuda cada um de nós, e se vários indivíduos são ajudados, o colectivo é ajudado. Não que os artistas sejam profetas, mas frequentemente encontram maneiras de ver e dizer, de novo, chegam a imagens que avançam. Uma nova metáfora que seja verdadeira em relação à realidade faz avançar as coisas.
Há um verso de John Keats que diz: "Heard melodies are sweet [São doces as melodias escutadas]. Em inglês, "heard" pode soar como "herd" [rebanho, carneirada]. Frequentemente, o que as pessoas querem dos escritores são "herd melodies", os ditadores esperam dos escritores que falem por slogans, ou apelem à solidariedade do colectivo. Mas não é para isso que a criação deve apelar, mas sim ao que na consciência de cada um se reconhece como verdade.
Tomou como mote, no poema "Harvest Bow": "O fim da arte é a paz". O que significa que a arte nunca terminará.
O objectivo da arte, da poesia, é, de alguma forma, reparar o que está danificado. Se tudo fosse reparado, a arte estaria acabada - mas isso é impossível. Esse mote é uma citação de Yeats... a pequena "harvest bow" [laçada da colheita] pertence ao centro de todas as coisas, um pequeno pedaço de palha que remonta às origens, apanha o significado humano. Esse poema foi escrito nos anos 70, quando havia uma forte pressão da realidade exterior [na Irlanda do Norte]. Wallace Stevens disse que a poesia representa a imaginação lutando contra a pressão da realidade. A pequena laçada está a lutar contra o que a cerca, tentando fazer a paz.
O título da sua última antologia de poemas, "Opened Ground" [Chão aberto] tem a ver com toda a sua poesia, com a busca de raízes. Ao longo destes 35 anos representados no livro (1966-96) como evoluiu a sua relação com o seu chão, a Irlanda do Norte? Ou, de outra forma, o que é que o tempo lhe ensinou?
Que tudo é mais simples e singular, que tudo se relaciona. Comecei com uma forte consciência de mim enquanto resistente no que era então a Irlanda do Norte: pertencendo a uma minoria católica, com uma fidelidade à cultura gaélica, irlandesa. Sentia uma grande solidariedade política com essa minoria, pelas discriminações que existiam. A minha identidade era baseada nessa resistência política e num cordão com o passado irlandês. O inglês é a minha língua materna, mas estudei gaélico e tinha essa noção de ter sido desapossado da língua irlandesa devido a séculos de língua inglesa.
Na universidade aprendo a história da língua inglesa. E gradualmente compreendo que a nossa existência como criaturas, com impulsos, instinto, está baseada no inglês. Ou seja, havia uma Irlanda escondida em mim, mas descubro através da educação, do vocabulário que também havia uma Inglaterra escondida em mim - talvez não tão escondida... -, como há uma Grécia, como, através do catolicismo há um certo Mediterrâneo... Não traímos o que está lá, expandimos, renovamos, reapossamo-nos, de outra forma, do que está lá. Robert Frost disse que o objectivo da educação era mudar o plano do olhar. O nosso plano do olhar, se temos sorte, continua a mudar, a re-situar-se. No discurso de aceitação do Nobel usei essa ideia da ondulação que vem de um centro... atiramos uma pedrinha numa piscina e algo começa, as ondas vão avançando, avançando... à medida que envelhecemos, a nossa experiência alarga-se, mas ainda estamos ligados a essa coisa no centro.
Politicamente, como é que avalia agora a situação na Irlanda do Norte?
Há uma mudança enorme. Se pegarmos nos anos 40/50, quando eu cresci, tínhamos um governo apenas unionista, havia discriminação, uma força policial armada. Nos anos 60 houve algumas mudanças, o acesso da minoria à educação, movimentos de direitos civis. Depois, os levantamentos dos anos 60/70 quando a estrutura de governo foi desmantelada e começou a violência, o IRA, a velha luta pela independência. E os anos 80 começam com greves de fome e a senhora Thatcher dizendo: "Isto não é uma situação política, são criminosos." Acabamos os anos 90 com um acordo alargado, concedendo que a minoria tem uma identidade, tem o direito de ser representada politicamente.
Nada está completamente consolidado, mas ultrapassou-se a intransigência dos britânicos e dos unionistas. O que era necessário era o respeito pela identidade, pela legitimidade da cultura irlandesa. Ainda virá a ser confuso, complicado mas as alterações são enormes.
E continua a existir a "cumplicidade das tribos", de que fala num dos seus poemas mais célebres, "Casualty", sobre um amigo católico morto pelo IRA num bar de unionistas?
Persiste, não seria humano se não persistisse. Mas as instituições estão lá para alargar, abrir essas fronteiras.
Sim. Pensemos na segregação nos estados do sul dos EUA nos anos 50. Mudaram-se as coisas através de legislação. Não significa que os brancos supremacionistas já gostem dos negros, mas são obrigados a deixar que se sentem na parte da frente do autocarro. E isso é uma diferença enorme: quando as instituições, as leis garantem paridade, levará um século, mas as consciências mudarão. O seu sentido de justiça é ressuscitado.
Na introdução de "Beowulf" fala dessa estranheza que se pode ter por um irlandês nacionalista, católico traduzir o poema da tradição anglo-saxónica, e conclui dizendo que é como se essa antítese, essa barreira tivesse colapsado. O que é que lhe interessou nesse trabalho, além do imenso desafio literário?
O primeiro dos motivos foi linguístico, artístico. Não o poderia ter feito se não sentisse que a melodia do meu discurso poético tinha alguma coisa a ver com "Beowulf": com o meu diapasão, eu podia apanhar a "nota" de "Beowulf". Mas, no fim, não pude impedir-me de pensar no que significava ter traduzido esta obra. Como nacionalista católico, etc. era esperado de mim que traduzisse da língua irlandesa, que afirmasse a profunda tradição irlandesa - e fi-lo em 1983, publicando um livro, "Sweeney Astray" [tradução de uma obra medieval irlandesa], que queria dizer: 'Ei, há uma longa tradição aqui!' Era uma declaração política, também.
Ao concluir "Beowulf", pensei que era pelo menos malicioso, irónico, ir às fundações da tradição anglo-saxónica e apropriá-la [risos]. Ou, noutro sentido, alienar a distinção, tentar dizer que as políticas de identidade são um pouco disparatadas... Porque, segundo a lógica dessas políticas, nós, os católicos da Irlanda do Norte traduzimos a tradição irlandesa, vocês, protestantes, unionistas traduzem os anglo-saxões... Isto reduz as possibilidades humanas, não é a forma como somos, não é verdadeiro em relação à vida, à nossa capacidade de absorver tudo. Cada criatura tem uma estação receptora que pode receber quase tudo, desde que não lhe imponham barreiras. A minha, enquanto criatura da fonética, está muito alerta a essa rocha anglo-saxã, que me deu, dá muito prazer.
Levei três anos a completar essa tradução, comecei nos anos 80, interrompi, recomecei em Março de 1995 e acabei-a no fim de 1998. Pelo meio, o Nobel afastou-me durante um ano. Mas ter "Beowulf" como um objectivo, um trabalho ajudou-me muito depois do Nobel, recentrou-me. Foi um lastro.
Friday, September 12, 2003 Elul 15, 5763
`Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes'
By Galia Benziman
Guilt is at the center of the rich, wonderful long poem `Station Island,' by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. He feels guilty about being alive, about his request for absolution and above all, about his lack of political commitment.
"Station Island" (bilingual edition) by Seamus Heaney, translated from English with an introduction, notes and epilogue by Yehuda Litani, Carmel Publishing House, 141 pages, NIS 69
“Station Island," a long poem by Seamus Heaney, is a work that describes a double journey. This is both a geographical journey and a pilgrimage to Lough Derg in Ireland, and Station Island, a holy site for Catholics, and a dive inward to the depths of memory and forgetting in the Irish poet's personal and literary biography. Very salient here, both as a subject that is treated directly and at the implied, figurative level, is the motif of absent presence. The present tense in the poem, apart from transitional sentences that have to do with movement from one spot on the island to another, is in fact the past tense. And the aggregate of the speakers in the poem, of whom there seem to be very many, all derive from a single speaker, the image of the poet himself, who imagines or draws out interlocutors from his inner world. That is, the journey outward is primarily a journey inward, and the religious framework of the act of pilgrimage is mainly a shell that encloses a fragile and autonomous personal-emotional process.
Seamus Heaney, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995), is in the eyes of many, the greatest poet writing in English today. He was born in 1939 in Northern Ireland, which is under British control. There he grew up as a member of the Catholic minority, but as an adult he moved to Dublin, capital of the independent Republic of Ireland. He made the pilgrimage to Station Island in the 1970s, and the long poem was first published in 1984.
As the translator, Yehuda Litani, explains in his introduction to the book, among Catholics there is a belief that a person who visits the island, deprives himself, fasts, confesses and desires to repent is given absolution, but only for his personal sins (between him and his fellow man). The stations after which the island is named are crosses, next to which there are "beds" (niches), which served in the Middle Ages as isolation cells. The pilgrims go from station to station, and they must spend six hours at each one. Litani writes of a folk belief that people who have lost their loved ones can meet them on Station Island, and apparently Heaney drew from this the subject for his poem.
However, as noted, the precise and regimented religious framework that Heaney sketches for his journey includes elements that are far less clear, and deviate, sometimes ironically, from the usual content of a pilgrimage. The three levels at which the speaker appears in the poem - personal, literary and political - are inextricably intertwined. Childhood memories, the violent conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants, sources of inspiration and literary influences, dilemmas that he faces as a poet - these are the main subjects of "Station Island," but all of them are variations on a single theme.
All cast blame
The personages who come to Heaney, each at a different station, and each at the center of one of the 12 parts of the poem, are very different from one another. The first character is a frightening gypsy traveler he remembers from his childhood ("`I was your mystery man ...'"), and after him appear in sequence a sister who died when he was a child whose name "they hardly ever spoke" at home; an old teacher from his school; a childhood love; a priest from Heaney's village who became a missionary and died in the prime of his life in Africa; an archaeologist friend who died at the age of 32 from heart disease ("`Ah poet, lucky poet, tell me why / what seemed deserved and promised passed me by?'"); the 19th-century Irish poet William Carleton ("`O holy Jesus Christ, does nothing change?'"); a cousin who was murdered by Protestants; a childhood friend who was murdered by Protestants ("His brow was blown open above the eye and blood / had dried on his neck and cheek."); a monk to whom Heaney once confessed; a professional hit man from the IRA; James Joyce.
In all this, despite the variation, there is a regular pattern that characterizes these encounters. First of all, all the characters are already dead, and their presence is therefore an absent presence. All of them, almost without exception, cast specific blame on Heaney or indirectly cause him to feel guilt toward them. All of them confront him with the weakness, fear or indecision within him; all of them are stronger than he is - passive, dragged along, defensive and not knowing.
If we make an incautious reduction of this wonderful, rich poem, we could say that the main issue in the poem is guilt. He feels guilt about being alive, while the figures he meets are not alive. He feels guilt about the fact of the pilgrimage, which is a kind of request for absolution that he perhaps does not have the right to make, and apart from that is a primitive, ritual act of which he should be ashamed. He feels guilt about his inferiority relative to poets and writers he presents as stronger than he. And he feels guilt - perhaps most of all - about his lack of political commitment, his flight, as a poet and as a man, from taking a clear stance with respect to the terrible conflict between the Catholics who are seeking their independence and the Protestants who support British rule - a conflict that has shadowed his life and the lives (and deaths) of all the characters involved in the poem.
In the second poem, in a confrontation with Carleton, a Catholic poet and writer of the previous century who defected to the Protestant lines, Heaney justifies being apolitical: ("`I have no mettle for the angry role,' I said ... `Obedient strains ... tuned me first / and not that harp of unforgiving iron'"). At a later stage in the work, in the eighth poem, Heaney meets his murdered cousin, Colum McCartney, about whose death he learned at a conference of poets. Heaney, says Litani in a footnote, did not leave the conference despite the news. And this is what McCartney says to him: "`You confused evasion and artistic tact. / The Protestant who shot me through the head I accuse directly, but indirectly, you / who now atone perhaps upon this bed / for the way you whitewashed ugliness ... /and saccharined my death with morning dew.'"
It appears that here Heaney expresses, through the ghost of his cousin, the recognition that poetry, those "obedient strains" - cannot be apolitical. This inability is not only value-based, but also logical: The escape from politics is an immoral stance but it is also, paradoxically, a political stance in itself. And poetry, which for Heaney serves - as he testifies - as a cover and excuse to evade politics, arouses in him self-disgust and self-hatred. His poetry tries here, in "Station Island," to do the opposite: It bombards the reader in a very violent and focused way with the hatred, the violence and the killing of Ireland.
Nevertheless, when the overall structure of the poem is surveyed, there is no escape from the conclusion that Heaney does not undergo a transformation. It seems to suffice that he has set the dybbuk free; and now that he is out, it is possible after all to go back to that same "morning dew," to that same poetry that evades the difficult political reality.
At the last station, where Heaney takes his leave of Station Island, he finds justification for this; there he meets a "tall man" who looks blind, whose helping hand grasps him, "fish-cold and bony, but whether to guide / or to be guided I could not be certain." And this is how the man - James Joyce, the famous exile, who fled Ireland in desperation - absolves him: "`The main thing is to write / for the joy of it ... Take off from here. And don't be so earnest // let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. / You've listened long enough.'"
This is the final station in Heaney's journey of self-discovery. The advice offered in these last lines expresses reservations about Catholic nationalism, the same reservations about which Heaney feels so much guilt; after all, this is not the "correct" political stance in the eyes of most of the figures he encountered on his journey, apart from Joyce. Submitting to these guilt feelings will cause him, in the end, "to lose himself" as a poet.
The introduction, the epilogue and the footnotes written by Yehuda Litani reflect a great deal of knowledge and a strong emotional attachment to Heaney's work and its subjects. The Hebrew translation of the poem (along with three short poems by Heaney) for the most part succeeds in preserving Heaney's fluid and natural language - an ostensibly clear and simple language that has often been compared to the language of Robert Frost for its deceptive simplicity.
Nevertheless, the translation is not of uniform quality, and from time to time things get a bit tangled in the elevation of register to which translation into Hebrew is so often prone. This could have been smoothed out in the editing. A second, less common problem, is the occasional plain inaccuracy. In the ninth poem, for example, "hit man" in the sense of "assassin" is mistranslated into Hebrew as "the man who was hit."
Litani tried to visit Lough Derg himself, like Heaney - in order to penetrate the nooks and crannies of the consciousness of the poet he so loves. It was as if he tried to get "inside" the poem, an aspiration that is doomed to chronic failure, and not only because on the day he went there the island was closed to visitors, but also because seeing the island with his own eyes is not equivalent to seeing the island with Heaney's eyes.
However, alongside the failure, there is also a success here: In his attempt to get to Station Island, Litani replicates something of what happens in the poem itself. He tries to reach the island in order to meet a literary figure who pursues him. The act of translation - like the journey Heaney takes in the poem itself - is thus an act of pilgrimage.
September 24, 2010
Ply the Pen
By WILLIAM LOGAN
By Seamus Heaney
85 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24
For a poet, life after the Nobel can be pottering, or bookkeeping, or simply keeping busy — it’s rarely full of radical departures or stunning new poems. (Eliot called the prize a “ticket to one’s own funeral,” and indeed it proved the funeral of his poetry.) Even pottering can be difficult when you are constantly in demand to judge this prize or sign that public letter, to give a blurb to old X or a recommendation to young Y. For a poet, all life can be a distraction from the siren call of the page. When you read that Seamus Heaney has a secretary to help him answer correspondence, you wish he had half a dozen, and perhaps a few armed guards. Yet apart from Pasternak, who was bullied by his government, no poet has ever turned down the poisoned chalice.
Heaney is the most popular literary poet since Frost, who managed to convince most of his readers that he wasn’t a literary poet at all, that he booted up poems while mucking out a spring or driving a buggy — and perhaps, in a way, he did. Readers often love in Heaney what they loved in Frost, the unassumed and unassuming wisdom. Heaney has rubbed shoulders, as Frost did, with some of the most important literary figures of his day; Heaney has spent a long share of nights in hotels and on the road, as Frost did; yet often they write as if, just out the window, the cows were bawling to be milked and the first green shoots were sprouting in the fields — and as if neither man had spent more nights in a hotel than the Queen of Sheba.
In “Human Chain,” Heaney’s latest collection, the poet is again a child in the world of things, his attention drawn to objects common as a coal sack:
Not coal dust, more the weighty grounds of coal
The lorryman would lug in open bags
And vent into a corner,
A sullen pile
But soft to the shovel, accommodating
As the clattering coal was not.
In days when life prepared for rainy days
It lay there, slumped and waiting
To dampen down and lengthen out
The fire, a check on mammon
And in its own way
Keeper of the flame.
This isn’t lump coal, the top screening from the mine, but the bottom-deck “slack coal,” the cheap bits and grindings that fall through the other meshes. This refuse coal trims the cost of the fire (hence the mention of the Bible’s Mammon). “Keeper of the flame” is its own droll joke, as if the coal, like the poet, honors the dead. Heaney is not a plain poet, at least not as plain as he seems — the poems often have to be prodded and stirred to yield their meanings.
At times the Ireland of Heaney’s poems seems trapped in amber. The boom years of the Celtic Tiger and the bursting of the bubble afterward have made little impression on his work. Yet this love of the things of this world has made a world, even if one somewhat sealed off (Susan Sontag once said to an American novelist that he was living in his own theme park, and Heaney’s Ireland is sometimes like Disney Dublin). “Human Chain” is a gallery of things — of the binder and the baler (“the clunk of a baler / Ongoing, cardiac-dull”), of the heating boiler and the mite box and the gold-banded fountain pen, possessions that also possess, things that seize the people who use them, like the boy
Who would ease his lapped wrist
From the flap-mouthed cuff
Of a jerkin rank with eel oil,
The abounding reek of it
Among our summer desks
My first encounter with the up close
That had to be put up with.
Given the poet, given the future, it’s hard not to think that the Troubles lie there before him. That would suit his passive temper. At ease with forgotten manners, at ease with a sentence winding toward two final prepositions, Heaney manages to stiffen his syntax with an Anglo-Saxon rectitude of rhythm; yet where most poets live by eye, Heaney likes to press the reader’s nose into the carnal stench of things.
This love of the way things work, this delight in the hard practical craftsman, is very different from Auden’s boyish romance with mining equipment. Auden loved such machines partly for the rust. Heaney likes to see a task efficiently done, and his poems are full of characters who know a job of work. Like Virgil’s “Georgics,” his poems offer a quiet master-class on how a farm used to be run, the homage of someone who returns again and again to the Irish fields that bore him.
“Lick the pencil” we might have called him
So quick he was to wet the lead, so deft
His hand-to-mouth and tongue-flirt round the stub.
Or “Drench the cow,” so fierce his nostril-grab
And peel-back of her lip, so accurately forced
The bottle-neck between her big bare teeth.
Or “Catch the horse,” for in spite of the low-set
Cut of him, he could always slip an arm
Around the neck and fit winkers on
In a single move.
Perhaps we give too much respect to a poetry lost in pastoral — it’s the strain of Romanticism most palatable to contemporary taste (palatable, and often deeply conservative). A lot of modern poetry comes out of Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer, and at times Heaney drags in too many old grubbers with dirt under their thumbnails. Lewis Carroll wrote a howling parody of “The Leech-Gatherer” (later titled “Resolution and Independence”), and I doubt he would let the Irishman off any more lightly. Yet Heaney’s nostalgia is rarely simple — he understands the cost of love too well.
Heaney has Frost’s avuncular voice, the bootstrap wisdom, the love of the natural world caught and rendered; yet he’s not really a teller of tales, and his poems are slow to draw the homilies beloved by Frost — the endings are hesitant, unrevealing, morally ambiguous. One of the great virtues of Heaney’s poems is patience — when he lingers over a description of a shopcoat, he gives the thing edge and weight. (Frost never paused for such descriptions and had an aversion to ingenious metaphor.) However much this is poetry, it is not “poetry,” the long-winded sentimental bombast that makes schoolchildren run screaming from poems ever after.
For decades Heaney has been a model citizen in the state of literature. He has produced useful translations (most popularly of “Beowulf,” a best seller), idiosyncratic anthologies, a respectable body of criticism and, every few years, a new book of poems. He’s unlikely to be remembered for more than the poems, and among the poems unlikely to be remembered for much written in the past 10 or 20 years.
There’s a state of innocence poets need, a state hard to reach when they’ve been frog-marched out of paradise to the memorial dinners and honorary degrees of experience. Many of Heaney’s new poems start with the old flair and dash, but after a few lines they lose their way and sputter out. The late work has been solid, composed to a high level of craftsmanship; but the poems are like footnotes to poems already written, with all of his mastery but little of his passion and less of his subdued outrage. They become that evil thing, poems written for the sake of writing poems.
“Human Chain” is far from Heaney’s best book — the short and short-winded sequences rarely smolder like a peat bog afire underground. He’s still good at the character sketches from the Irish hinterlands, the deft evocations of common objects (the evidence of the ordinary bewitches him), the elegies and funerals that increasingly have dominated his work. Troubled by the losses memory is heir to, most moving on his father’s decline and death, the poems are evocations of a life now past.
Heaney still has the great virtue of never saying too much, of letting the poem do so much work and no more. He can make buying a copy of Book VI of the “Aeneid,” that sturdy companion of young Latin scholars, as haunting as the visit to the Underworld within. For a poet of such ambition, Heaney has long given modesty a good name.
William Logan’s most recent book of poetry is “Strange Flesh.”