Tag Archives: Seamus Heaney

Famous Seamus

The Guardian has a wonderful article about Seamus Heaney on the occasion of his 70th year of livin’ la vida literary. If you want to learn something about savoir faire, read his account of what it was like to suffer a stroke while visiting playwright Brian Friel and his wife:

Heaney reports his instinctive Ulster sang froid, saying: “My sense of humour was intact as they were carrying me down.” Almost everyone involved in getting the bulky, 6ft figure of Heaney down the stairs had been involved with the Field Day theatre company, and many of the group had recently suffered minor illnesses. So now, with his natural detachment, Heaney made a joke. “It’s the curse of Field Day, I said. But within an hour I was in the ambulance.”

“The trip in the ambulance I always remember,” he says, “because Marie was in the back with me. I just wrote about it three weeks ago. To me, that was one of the actual beauties of the stroke, that renewal of love in the ambulance. One of the strongest, sweetest memories I have. We went through Glendorn on a very beautiful, long, bumpy ride to Letterkenny hospital.” There, they did a scan, he continues. “And the woman who was doing the scan – this is Ireland for you – the nurse said, ‘I believe you were at Friel’s last night.’ Her uncle had been at the party. So this is Ireland,” he repeats, with satisfaction. It’s certainly Heaney’s Ireland.

I have all of Heaney’s books of poetry, read aloud by the man himself, loaded into my iPod. I know what I’m listening to on the commute to work.

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Friday finds

I hope this doesn’t spoil your day, but the opening of the long-planned museum devoted to the Swedish pop group ABBA has been delayed for at least two years. ABBA fans will just have to console themselves by looking forward to a worldwide touring exhibit of ABBA-related paraphernalia, stocking up on ABBA hair-care products or ordering some ABBA stage costumes. Or they can rent out Muriel’s Wedding (above), the tale of how a young woman living in the Australian town of Porpoise Spit sets out to make her life “as great as an ABBA song.”    

Literary blogger starts her own Brooklyn bookstore. Go thou and buy books.

In memoriam, Steve Gilliard.

The new issue of The Biographer’s Craft is ready for your perusal. So, for that matter, is Ansible.

“. . . if he is your friend, you could call him to help you bury a body. He’d bitch about his aching back the whole time, but he’d still grab a shovel.”

It’s been a bad week for film actors associated with the martial arts. First David Carradine was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room, and now Shek Kin has passed on as well.

Biblical microfiction from Joe Z. Elisheva: “This angel sits here, silent, forever by my side. His head is bowed, but his eyes look up toward me, here as I lie on this soft stone bed of comfort. His wings, his feathers whisper without words in the gentle breeze that flows through this sealed room.”

Only a few hours left top hear Ian McMillan talk with poet Seamus Heaney.

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Work words

Flax dam

I love the way Seamus Heaney loves work-words. Not jargon, which is in-group talk meant to keep outsiders at bay, but the specialized words needed for the specialized tools needed to carry out a task. The Nobel laureate grew up in County Derry, in a farm house where horses could be heard knocking and snorting on the other side of the wall, and his poetry brims over with the names of implements, terms for daily chores and the unyielding routines of farm life. In “Following,” Heaney’s admiration for his father’s expertise with a plow rings from every line:

An expert. He would set the wing                                    
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Set the wing. Fit the sockHeadrig. Pluck. Learning the words is part of learning the job. Even if you don’t know anything about farming, Heaney’s verse conjures up images of the plow being set in place, the knife adjusted to cut through the thick-woven sod on the surface, and the blades of the plow slipping into the cut and unzipping the ground, pushing the sod up in long rolls so that its falls away on either side of the plow, opening the soil beneath for cultivation.

The title poem of  his 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist introduced the term “flax dam” to my suburban-reared consciousness:

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

As it turns out, preparing flax for cleaning and spinning into yarn involves soaking the bundled stems in a flax dam or lint hole, an artificial pond where the bundles (called “beets”) are kept submerged for weeks with clods of earth or large stones. As the flax stems rot and soften, the gas fizzing up through the water produces an appalling smell. The image used at the top of this post is “The Flax Dam at Dunseverick,” an acrylic painting by Brian Willis based on a photo of an actual flax dam.

Nature being what it is, the artificial pond created for work quickly becomes a stage for all kinds of other things that would appeal to a curious young boy:

There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

 I’ve been listening to the audio version of “Death of a Naturalist,” and Seamus Heaneywhen the poem arrives at the lines about Miss Walls, Heaney’s voice becomes soft and singsong, like a condescending schoolteacher turning the messy processes of nature into a tidy Beatrix Potter tale: “Miss Walls would tell us how/ The daddy frog was called a bullfrog/ And how he croaked and how the mammy frog/ Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was/ Frogspawn.” That final “frogspawn” is practically a sigh. It evokes a teacher gently filing something away, tucking it into a mental drawer. As the end of the poem demonstrates, there’s no filing away the gross fecundity of life.

Just how fecund, and just how gross, quickly becomes apparent:

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

“Death of a Naturalist” is an ironic title: the “naturalist” is a boy who is repulsed and alienated by the discovery that life will not sit neatly displayed on windowsills, and that its aggressive expansiveness can even seem faintly sinister to anyone not prepared to meet it.

And, since there is hardly a word or phrase in Heaney’s collected poems that does not serve multiple purposes, I suppose it’s no accident that the boy seems to be of an age when procreation, which Miss Wall has reduced to little stories about mammy frogs and daddy frogs, is about to take on an icky immediacy. The great slime kings have their revenge on us all, in a manner of speaking.

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Seamus at 70

How embarrassing to have missed the chance to mark Seamus Heaney’s 70th birthday yesterday. Let me make up for it with some poetry. Here’s a video montage set to Heaney’s reading of “The Tollund Man.” I’m not sure what makes images from the civil-rights era compatible with a poem about an ancient body drawn from the peat bogs of northern Europe, but our reponses to poetry are as personal as our choices of poems, and all I can do is honor the effort: 


Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.


I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.


Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

If you want to hear Heaney read the poem without musical accompaniment, click on this link. Some readers may only know Heaney from his translation of Beowulf, the audio version of which lent a note of mythic struggle to many of my morning commutes. Just about all of his books are in print, but I think the career retrospective Opened Ground is an ideal introduction to the man’s work.   
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Friday finds

I’m sorry to say I let Miriam Makeba slip by without properly appreciating her during her lifetime. I gather from this excellent appreciation that she was an artist with courage to match her talent: she died giving a benefit performance for Roberto Saviano, a journalist living in hiding because of his work to expose the Camorra criminal organization, in a town that is one of the Camorra’s strongholds. Saviano’s book Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System is a fine, deeply disturbing book. Meanwhile, here’s the place to start catching up on Makeba’s body of work.

Imagine this backroom chat between Barack Obama and Joe Lieberman. Seems plausible to me. Especially that last part.

Some years ago I interviewed Robert Darnton about his book The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, a thoroughly researched and thought-out study of the street literature in France just before the end of the monarchy, when writers and printers faced hard labor and even execution for publishing works that undermined the throne or conventional morality. Darnton was impressed by the level of critical acumen shown by the king’s agents, who maintained dossiers on suspect writers and filed reports on their work — sometimes very knowledgeable and amusing reports. I suspect they were considerably more literate than the FBI agents who kept tabs on Norman Mailer for 15 years. Far more interesting from a professional writer’s point of view, however, is this New York Observer piece on the Mailer estate’s dealings with publishers, and the unusual contract Mailer had with Random House.

It’s the Frank O’Hara video collection!

A review of the first-ever stage production of Frank Zappa’s epic Joe’s Garage serves as the springboard to a lengthy appreciation of all things Zappa, filled out with a generous assortment of video clips and a list of dream directors to consider should a film version ever take shape. My money’s on Stuart Gordon — the man who brought us Re-Animator is the only one to put the mind of Zappa onscreen. Though I think Over-nite Sensation is the Zappa record to start with,  Joe’s Garage is probably his masterpiece. Everything that’s good and bad about his work is right there: the sophistication and the puerility, the charm and the abrasiveness, the satirical smarts and the scatological stupids, all on two CDs.

Oh man, how weird is this?

Madame Mayo talks about translations.

“The experiment of poetry, as far as I am concerned, happens when the poem carries you beyond where you could have reasonably expected to go. The image I have is from the old cartoons: Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse coming hell for leather to the edge of a cliff, skidding to a stop but unable to halt, and shooting out over the edge. A good poem is the same, it goes that bit further and leaves you walking on air.”

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