Digging into Heaney: A Little Rabbit Trail

Boglands by AE (George William Russell)
via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been swept into a general Heaney retrospective quite by chance. My friend Sally Thomas rediscovered his book of essays, Finder’s Keepers, on her shelf and started sharing tidbits, little nibbles of passages that caught her eye. I realized, “I have that book on my shelf too!” and I found it and realized I’d never even cracked open the cover. the Amazon packing slip was still stuck in the pages, a gift from my mom, but it came in the wrong season. Now, though, the time is ripe and the book is claiming my attention.

And not only the book. I’ve found myself stalking YouTube and watching old interviews, poetry readings. Listening to his voice. I think he’s one of the best readers of poetry I’ve ever encountered. But also I love what he says *about* poetry. Heaney’s reflections on what he reads are really worth digging into; Heaney as a reader of literature is almost as intoxicating as he is a poet.

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I love his explanation of the collection’s title:

“On the playground the phrase ‘finders keepers’ probably still expresses glee and stakes a claim, so in that sense it can apply as well to the experience of a reader of poetry: the first encounter with work that excites and connects will induce in the reader a similar urge to celebrate and take possession of it. My title is therefore an acknowledgement that many of these essays have their origins in such moments. Mostly they are appreciations, reports on the good of poetry itself, attempts to ‘keep’ it and to say why it is worth keeping. They are also, of course, testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for.”

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His essay Mossbawn has me wanting to dig into my own past, my first memories of songs and poems. I’ve been going back in time, thinking of the first songs I remember my mom singing to me: Oh where have you been Billy Boy, Billy Boy… and Mairsy Doats and Dozy Doats and Liddle Lambs A-Divey. I can almost feel the hair brush and smell the hair dryer and the smell of hot hair as she’s singing and doing my hair and I must have been very little.

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When I heard that Seamus Heaney had died I had this impulse to go post a bunch of my favorite quotations online to commemorate his passing, to share the joy of the poetry, to introduce people to the lines that have touched me most. And then I sat there in my chair, stumped. I couldn’t think of a single line off the top of my head. Not one verse that I’d committed to memory. Eventually I pulled some of his books off the shelf, leafed through them, found my favorite poems, lingering to read favorite passages over and over. But first I sat there in a funk with that sort of sad recognition that, while he is one of my most beloved poets, his actual poems don’t seem to stick in my head. I wanted to just post all my favorite lines from his poems… like I do with Eliot and Hopkins and Shakespeare…. and I realized my memory hoard doesn’t have much Heaney at all. I have deeply cherished many of his poems, but they sit in my head in a different place. All I have floating around immediately accessible are isolated phrases: word hoard. The bleb of an icicle. The spirit level. Mossbawn. Glanmore. Whatever you say, say nothing. Gutteral muse.

I guess I’ve never really committed any of Heaney’s poems to memory and the lines don’t tend to stick the way Dickinson or Yeats or Donne do (to name but a few). I wonder why that is? Is it just that I encountered Heaney at a different time of my life when I wasn’t memorizing things and that I never bothered to make the effort? Or is there something about his verse that doesn’t have the same kind of stickiness? Or is it because I associate his verse too much with his physical voice and I can’t internalize that as much? It’s kind of a mystery, a little frustrating. It also makes me feel like a little bit of a fraud as a Heaney fan. Maybe fraud isn’t quite the right word, but something of a sense of… maybe shame is closer? … or betrayal? Like if I really loved him I’d give him the same space in my head? Or, worse, the small whisper of doubt: Maybe Heaney isn’t really the great poet I think he is?

It was not an enduring emotion, of course, because on reflection I realized how many of his poems and his world view *have* shaped me and sunk deep; though maybe they are more like his beloved bog artifacts, a sort of unconscious presence? But it was certainly the emotion I felt again when I remembered hearing about Heaney’s death. That feeling of being bereft and sad all tangled up with the odd sense of discomfort at not having his lines on the tip of my tongue.

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This web of emotions around Heaney’s death surfaced again when I read, this lovely reflection on Heaney what Heaney meant to his friends and readers by Sven Birkerts, who writes about the sense of shocked incomprehension he felt when he received the news of Heaney’s death:

“But now it was the end of summer, and Peter was sending the impossible news, and my first reaction, alongside complete disbelief, was not the grave sense of the loss of my friend, but something else, a feeling that was strangely collective. Auden wrote of the moment of Yeats’s death that ‘he became his admirers’, and I had the strongest feeling just then of what he meant. I conjured all at once, if this is possible, the idea, the emotional image, of all of those who knew and loved Seamus, or knew and loved his work — or both — and I felt inside the ghostly trace of a circuitry. That in this one moment all over the world, and of course most densely in Ireland, in Dublin, and most overwhelmingly on his own home ground in Sandymount, this same shock of incomprehension — not yet bereavement — was being registered. I pictured one person after another, dozens perhaps, and these were only the people who I knew who had a connection. Of course there were hundreds, many hundreds more.”


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Birkerts experience of Heaney’s death was not my experience. I certainly could not count Seamus Heaney as a friend, I’m more of a fan. Though I have twice been to his poetry readings, so I can treasure the experience of hearing him in person, which isn’t nothing. When he came to read to the Irish Studies department at Boston College, a small private reading not generally announced, I could have spoken with him, introduced myself, but I was much too shy. What could I possibly say that wouldn’t sound foolish in my own ears? Still, count me among the many hundreds who felt a sense of loss at the news. 

Heaney introduced me to Ireland and lured me into Irish studies. Had I not encountered Heaney as an undergrad I’d never have ended up at Boston College, never have met Dom. My life would be totally different. And all because Heaney’s poetry swept me off my feet. I can still almost see the handful of photocopied sheets from a lecture I went to at UD, I remember almost nothing else about it except that I was certain I was in love. I don’t remember all of the poems that were included, but I remember The Republic of Conscience and Whatever You Say Say Nothing and probably North as well.

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I’m still grappling with Heaney. I’ll probably be reading his work all my life. Many of his poems aren’t easy. Some of them feel like closed doors which I stand outside, wondering how to get in.

His essays, too. I read them and feel like I’ve only skimmed the surface. There’s more there, but I’ll need to come back some other time.

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But back to Birkerts. My favorite part of his piece is what he says about digging as a metaphor in Heaney’s verse, a recurring theme in his career, and it echoes something I remember Heaney himself saying in an introduction to the poem.

“That verb ‘dig’ at first seems self-mocking, and maybe at the very outset of Heaney’s career, such an attitude was apt. But in the light of the decades of work that came after, the line can be read almost as prophecy. For what Heaney did was just that: he went down into the layers — of personal past, cultural past, tribal or mythic past, linguistic past — and he excavated. How much of this was by way of stubborn intent, and how much just a matter of disposition, is unknown. But in practice and in stance he set himself counter. In a world going swiftly neural and lateral, he stayed vertical, dug in. Not to strike a posture, however, or register a protest. But because, for him, imagination was primary — it was the source of meaning and making — and he knew that imagination, and its requirement of attention, cannot be sustained where the signals flash too distractingly.”

I also enjoyed Birkerts’ commentary on Heaney’s relationship with technology and its intersection with his art:

“I studied Seamus enough to know that he was a sly self-preservationist, wily in his pretences of technological ineptitude. To put it about that he felt too old-fashioned for the internet — that was a ploy. The man knew damn well that if he ever made himself available in that realm, he would have no time to call his own. Wisely, discreetly, he employed a proxy — an assistant who filtered messages sent to her name, and who responded on his behalf. What he did have, and used, apparently with great deftness, was a cellphone. I was shocked to learn this. A friend of his, a fellow Irish poet, confided to me that he and Seamus had great sport texting one another. Seamus, texting.

Indeed, the poet’s last communication was a text, according to his son. From the hospital bed, intending them for his wife, he dictated two words in Latin: noli timere. ‘Be not afraid.’ It was an extraordinary and heartening consolation, but also very much a private one. If there was a glimmer of something for the rest of us, it was maybe there in the way the timeline was folded back on itself — words from the old dead language flashing up on the screen not long before the end, or else the momentous transit.”

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While on my Heaney binge I also stumbled somehow onto a beautiful interview with his widow, Marie.

I didn’t know that Marie was a writer, an editor. I actually didn’t really know anything about her. The occasion for the interview is her newest book, a collection of lullabies and poems that she’s edited, called All Through the Night. After reading about it I knew that I needed to own it— and indeed it is a lovely collection and I’ll write more about it soon, I hope.



“It was meant to be a book of lullabies, an idea that stemmed partly from Seamus’s request to have Brahms’s Lullaby played at his funeral. “It was one of the most moving parts of the funeral. He’d asked me many, many years ago, long before mortality was on any of our minds . . . He said that when he went to school as an infant and he heard the big boys sing Brahms’s Lullaby, that that was his first intimation of the beauty of art – music in that case – that he ever had as a small child.”


Marie also talks about Seamus’s funeral, which moved me not a little:



“He had also asked for a traditional requiem Mass, to the surprise of some. “For him it gave to people a sense of transcendence, a sense of something beyond us even though you may not believe in it.”


The funeral, which she expected to be a quiet Mass, evolved into something close to a State affair, minus the military. “I felt in the end it was a great tribute to Seamus.”

It seems Marie is worth getting to know in her own right, not just at Seamus’ wife, I’m also eager to get my hands on another book she mentions in the interview:

“She is not unaccomplished herself. Having loved poetry as a child, she taught English, did some broadcasting and worked as a journalist – including for The Irish Times – and with the help of her master’s degree in Anglo-Irish literature and folklore was equipped to render legends written in Old Irish into accessible speech.

Among her books and anthologies is the highly successful book of Irish legends Over Nine Waves, published by Faber and still in print 22 years later.
“Good scholars have said to me it’s fine. There was a Harvard scholar of Old Irish who I was always afraid to meet, because she had done one of the crucial stories, and when we did meet she said she loved what I did. The book was out about three years then, and I lifted my head again.”



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I also love what she says about prioritizing family, about not playing second fiddle, about whether women need to prove themselves:



“Of course you’re into very tricky waters here, because women are not allowed to play second fiddle, and I never felt I did.

“I felt what I did was utterly legitimate, but I have to say, especially in America when that book” – Over Nine Waves – “came out they looked at me with new eyes. You have to do something like that to prove yourself – which I don’t agree with, by the way, and I think you don’t have to.

“I suppose in some way, yes, I was supportive. I essentially believe that the family is by far the most important thing you have, so I had no difficulty at all giving time to that. I would rather give time to my family than give it to some multinational.”


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A few excerpt from the Glanmore Sonnets:

“Vowels ploughed into other, opened ground,
Each verse returning like the plough turned round.”

* * *

“This evening the cuckoo and the corncrake
(So much, too much) consorted at twilight.
It was all crepuscular and iambic.”

* * *

“I had said earlier, ‘I won’t relapse
From this strange loneliness I’ve brought us to.
Dorothy and William—’ She interrupts:
‘You’re not going to compare us two…?’ ”

* * *

“Two fields back, in the house, small ripples shook
Silently across our drinking water
(As they are shaking now across my heart)
And vanished into where they seemed to start.”

* * *

“I dreamt we slept in a moss in Donegal
On turf banks under blankets, with our faces
Exposed all night in a wetting drizzle,
Pallid as the dripping sapling birches.
Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate.
Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found.
Darkly asperged and censed, we were laid out
Like breathing effigies on a raised ground.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Reading Notes April 2018 - The Wine-Dark Sea - May 6, 2018

    […] Another collection of essays, mostly about reading and writing. Again, something to dip into, read an essay, or even part of one, and then move on. I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it. (I wrote a little about my recent Heaney rabbit trail here: Digging Heaney) […]

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