By Seamus Heaney
New York: The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996
ISBN # 0-374-52511-0
81 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2012

Seamus Heaney has a marvelous ability to go back many years in memory and catch the essence of everyday experiences. He reveals the feelings and how they linger in his heart, and he very often then uses those experiences to make an analogous point to some larger lesson in life.

However, the poems seem mainly to be about language and sounds. I came away from the book with images of jazz musicians. They often take a very familiar tune, play it fairly straight for a few moments, then begin to go off on this or that riff which twists and turns, tries new sounds, combinations and ideas onto the familiar melody. With words Heaney takes these everyday scenes and tries to paint fairly abstract shapes and feelings with the original scene.

Fortunately I have a few more Heaney volumes awaiting me on my shelves, but I will wait a bit, going back in mind and in text to savor some of these wonderful poems.

A few comments along the way of reading:

The first two poems were in some ways a bit beyond me. The first, The Rain Stick was about an item, a rain stick that I had never heard of. I’ve since read of them and am even more delighted with the poem, especially loving the lines:

“And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling.”

The second poem was about a potter working in his studio. While I at least know what a potter is, I’ve never known one nor watched one, so I am quite unaware of that art.

In both cases Heaney’s musical and magical language allowed me to enjoy the poems very much, even though I didn’t know the full sense of them.

In his poem “Liberation” I was finally on some common ground of knowledge, but even here I was touched by his use of the post-war recovery to be a symbol of all such difficult renewals.

Another early poem, “Mint” was an analogy – many of the poems were – comparing a discovery of a delightful growth of mist in an otherwise run-down and seemingly useless plot of land with his optimistic ability to see hidden value in little things, even despised things.

“Sofa” underlines the theme of the old family sofa and all the positive memories it produced in him. It was such a sentimental poem it brought to mind the old Kitty Kallen song, “Little Things Mean A Lot.”

But not all is sweetness and light. Heaney writes pointedly of a brother killed in the Irish struggles and morns his loss, yet at the same time admiring another brother who carries on in life.

In “Weighing In” we read:

“And this is all the good tidings amount to:
This principle of bearing, bearing up
And bearing out, just having to

Balance the intolerable in others
Against our own having to abide
Whatever we settled for and settled into

Against our better judgment. Passive
Suffering makes the world go round.
Peace on earth, men of good will, All that

Holds good only as long as the balance holds,
The scales ride-steady and the angels’ strain
Prolongs itself at an unearthly pitch.”

His point here is not to turn the other cheek, but always to weigh in, no matter how.

Heaney does a good deal of translating and the first work of his I’ve commented on was his translation of Beowulf. In this volume it seems that he actually just translates the poems of others not writing in English, but who seem to write in the mode and style of Heaney. I’m not sure I have that right, or if he is using their poems to write a riff of his own. In any case, one of those was so touching to me that I will cite it in full:

(from the Romanian of Marvin Sorescu)

The first words got polluted
Like river water in the morning
Flowering with the dirt
Of blurbs and the front pages,
My only drink is meaning from the deep brain,
What the birds and the grass and the stones drink,
Let everything flow
Up to the four elements,
Up to water and earth and fire and air.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett