Seamus Heaney on writing ‘Postscript’: a ‘sidelong glimpse of something flying past’

Poet’s explanation to Dennis O’Driscoll of the genesis of his poem, first published in ‘The Irish Times’

Swans on Lough Muree beside the Flaggy Shore in North Clare. Photograph:  Eamon Ward

Swans on Lough Muree beside the Flaggy Shore in North Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward


By Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Postscript, the final poem in The Spirit Level, strikes me as just such a “surge of utterance”, a single burst of inspiration.Was that how it seemed at the time?

It was written quickly, yes, and I believe I sent it off almost immediately to The Irish Times. It could have been given a long Wordsworthian title, something like Memorial of a Tour by Motorcar with Friends in the West of Ireland, but that would misrepresent the sudden, speedy feel of it.

Now and again a poem comes like that, like a ball kicked in from nowhere: in this case, I was completely absorbed in writing one of the last of the Oxford lectures when I had this quick sidelong glimpse of something flying past; before I knew where I was, I went after it.

It came from remembering a windy Saturday afternoon when Marie and I drove with Brian and Anne Friel along the south coast of Galway Bay.

We had stopped to look at Mount Vernon, Lady Gregory’s summer house – still there, facing the waters and the wild; then we drove on into this glorious exultation of air and sea and swans. There are some poems that feel like guarantees of your work to yourself.

They leave you with a sensation of having been visited, and this was one of them. It excited me, and yet publishing it in The Irish Times was, as much as anything else, a way of sending a holiday postcard – a PS of sorts – to the Friels.

Ballynahinch Lake in Electric Light seems to have been conceived as a companion piece to Postscript. The lines declaring that this time, yes, it had indeed / Been useful to stop seem in dialogue with the earlier poem’s Useless to think you’ll park and capture it / More thoroughly”.

All true. Again, the second poem was written very soon after the experience it records – a Sunday morning in Connemara when we parked beside ‘the utter mountain mirrored in the lake’.

I suppose the poem is saying ‘find the mortal world enough’ – something that Postscript would find difficult to agree with.

An extract from Stepping Stones, Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll, published by Faber in 2008.

Postscript was first published in The Irish Times. From Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney. © 1998 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted by permission of Faber and Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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