What Heaney means to me
The criteria for choosing a favourite Seamus Heaney poem may vary, but the evocative power of poetry is the link that connects each one, some Heaney fans tell ARMINTA WALLACE
Literary tour guide and owner of Laurel Villa guesthouse, Magherafelt, Co Derry
“If I had to pick just one Heaney poem it would be Blackberry-picking. It brings me right back to happy childhood days at our farm in Dunamoney, just outside Magherafelt. At the end of August every year, the younger ones of us would set off with the McGlades and the McGuckins to gather blackberries. We hunted for them as a pack but each of us knew, from previous years, where to find the richest seams and we rushed to get there first, to taste the ‘flesh that was sweet like thickened wine’, before plopping the ripe and not-so-ripe ones into our milk cans. I just love that line: ‘Summer’s blood was in it.’
“There was a great feeling of anticipation as tin cans began to fill up and you thought of all the money you would get when you took all your canfuls into the town, to Jimmy Campbell’s yard at the bottom of the Fairhill. Alas, we too felt the disappointment when ‘we found a fur/A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache’ and those ones had to be discarded. Every time I hear this poem I feel something of that same ‘lust for picking’, remember palms ‘sticky as Bluebeard’s’, savour the simple pleasures of blackberry-picking.”
Musician and filmmaker
“I suppose my nearest and dearest poem of Heaney’s is The Given Note. What it refers to – as I understand it – is the body of water between Dún Chaoin and the Blasket Islands called the Blasket Sound. The lore locally is that the tune Port na bPúcaícame out of that body of water. For me, many things resonate in that poem. I hear the tune when I read the poem – or when it’s in my head, I also see the place. And when I stand and look out at the Blaskets I often hear that tune, and the poem, in my head. They’ve become interwoven, really.
“There’s something about the time we’re in now – the things we’re given are the things we take for granted. But ultimately, they’re the things that are valuable beyond value. They were given freely, and were passed on orally, transmitted from one to the other, nothing asked for but everything given. ‘Bits of a tune/Coming in on loud weather’.”
Jazz pianist and theatre composer
“There’s one poem at the moment I love, love, love: I set it to music, because it just pulled me right in. It’s from Clearances, and starts: ‘When all the others were away at mass. . .’ He describes a Sunday morning when everybody else is out of the house. He’s there with his mother, peeling potatoes. They sit at a table, doing this work, and kind of dreaming. It’s very, very quiet: there’s just the little ‘plop’ of the peeled potatoes as they drop into the cold water, one by one.
“Then it switches to the parish priest at his mother’s bedside, going hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying. Some people are listening and some are responding, but the poet goes back in his memory to the two of them peeling potatoes, and the last line is: ‘Never closer the whole rest of our lives.’ In my own life, when my mom was ailing, I would sit with her at her little kitchen table – and then when she really was not able to handle her accounts and bills, her younger brother, my uncle, would sit with me at the table, doing that work for her. I became very close with my uncle because of that, so when I saw that poem I thought of it immediately.”
MARK PATRICK HEDERMAN
Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick
“ Lighteningsis the poem I would choose, because it connects monasteries with the world of art. It is not my ‘favourite’ Heaney poem – there are too many of those – but at this moment it speaks to me as abbot of Glenstal Abbey.
“It speaks about the work of the monk and the way in which monasteries can act as anchors for art in ways that are helpful to both.
“This poem is also significant because Heaney himself quoted it in 1995 when he was receiving the Nobel Prize.
“It showed that he too was struggling, as he said, ‘with contradictory allegiances . . . to the numinous and to the matter-of-fact’, two dimensions that must receive attention if our passage to the future is to be rooted and on course.”
Psychotherapist and mother of three
“My favourite poem by Seamus Heaney is Scaffolding. I heard his wife Marie describe on a radio show how, early on in their marriage, he produced this poem for her following a row. Beats a mouldy bunch of flowers from the garage, eh?
“Anyway, intrigued by the romance of the story, I checked out the poem and just loved the maddeningly simple yet deeply evocative language and the picture it painted for me. I know these words are often used at wedding ceremonies but, being somewhat obtuse, I turned to it when my husband Ed died last autumn.
“And yes, the metaphor of the lyric holds true for me: while my scaffolding was ripped away, I have survived. More exposed and vulnerable, maybe, than before — but still a fairly solid structure.”
“I’m going to choose At the Wellhead. On the surface it’s about two women – his wife Marie, who always closes her eyes when she sings, and Rosie Keenan, a blind-from-birth neighbour.
“You can read it at that level – a poem about two women – and get a lot out of it. Most readers never see the rhyme scheme, or the structure, because it never intrudes.
“But if you drop down deeper and spend time with it, you could write a book about this poem.
“This well doesn’t just hold water: it holds marvels. When he looks at his blind neighbour, he doesn’t see a little woman with a white stick – he sees ‘a silver vein in heavy clay/Night water glittering in the light of day’. That’s a marvellous description of a poem – that’s what poetry is.”
Literature officer with the Arts Council
“I moved to Ireland from the US more than 10 years ago, and owe a great debt to Heaney’s poetry for helping me understand what Ireland looks and feels like. It is impossible for me to read Mossbawn: Sunlightwithout seeing the landscape, the pump, the yard, the interior of that rural Irish kitchen. What makes the poem so resonant for me, however, is its conclusion: ‘And here is love/Like a tinsmith’s scoop/ sunk past its gleam/ in the meal-bin.’ Heaney’s Derry suddenly becomes my Watertown, New York, and I’m with my mother in our suburban kitchen.
“In a different way, District and Circle absolutely stuns and amazes me. I remember reading it when it was first published, and it captures, with sympathy, grace and complexity, the anxiety people were feeling following the 9/11 and London bombings. The poem is at once acutely real and strangely dreamlike and everything a good poem should be; it makes you think, it makes you ask, its images linger, its language holds.”
“The piece I have chosen is Lighteningsfrom Seeing Things. The story, as Heaney himself says, ‘has all the there-you-are-and-where-are-you of poetry’ about it. For me it lives in that sacred place where poetry and reality overlap and it tells me that the miraculous and the mundane exist in the same space, illuminated by our perception of them.
“That such a miracle tale can be told with words at all is the first marvel. Then for the monks, the sight of a ship sailing in air must be beyond even their learned comprehension and the sailor, coming ‘back out of the marvellous as he had known it’, suggests to me his wonder as a mere mortal at the monks’ work of preserving for posterity – through their transcriptions and illuminations – the mysteries of existence.”
Director, Tyrone Guthrie Centre
“My favourite is Alphabets. It gets me in the gut; it brings back to me a lot of memories about how I learned to read. It’s all about symbols. The poet talks about school work being marked ‘with a little leaning hoe’, which got me puzzling and thinking – where did that symbol come from, the tick for a correct? Every letter he sees, he recognises it as something else; ‘the fork that they call a Y’.
“It’s a wonderfully circular poem with lots of references to globes, in which his life is spun out in alphabets – Greek, Latin, the old Irish script – and all the time his alphabets keep coming back to the land and to objects that he knew. It’s a journey through life and through literature and literacy by alphabets.”
Director of Clifden Arts Week
“ Mossbawn: Sunlightis the one that hops off the table for me. It has a sense of belonging: of going with my mother across the river Shannon to my grandmother in a village outside of Athlone; of arriving there, and the welcome, and the warmth, the cake of bread in the window. Long before mobile phones we cycled – if you can imagine – what is now the superhighway from Ballinasloe to Athlone. And in Clonown they’d put up a white sheet on the chimney, and my uncle, seeing the white sheet, would run down to the Shannon get into the boat and row across to fetch us. The summers always seemed very long; there was always sunshine and a great sense of wholesomeness of nature – of being alive and alert and part of nature. The memory of a happy childhood, really.”