Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Seamus Heaney's Birthday

Seamus Heaney, with Yeats my favorite poet; both Irishmen and Nobel laureates, turns 66 today. Heaney, came in in 1939 as Yeats was leaving, won the Nobel prize for literature in 1995, Yeats in 1923.

Here are a couple from my well worn, Seamus Heaney, Poems, 1965-1975, a compilation of his four volumes, Death of a Naturalist, Door into the Dark, Wintering Out, and North.

for Tom Flanagan

Our guttural muse
was bulled long ago
by the alliterative tradition,
her uvula grows

vestigial, forgotten
like the coccyx
or a Brigid's Cross
yellowing in some outhouse

while custom, that "most
sovereign mistress",
beds us down into
the British isles.

We are to be proud
of our Elizabethan English:
"varsity", for example,
is grass-roots stuff with us;

we "deem" or we "allow"
when we suppose
and some cherished archaisms
are correct Shakespearean.

Not to speak of the furled
consonants of lowlanders
shuttling obstinately
between bawn and mossland.

MacMorris, gallivanting
around the Globe, whinged
to courtier and groundling
who had heard tell of us

as going very bare
of learning, as wild hares,
as anatomies of death:
"What ish my nation?"

And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, "Ireland," said Bloom,
"I was born here. Ireland."

MacMorris is a character in Shakespeare's Henry V. The Globe is, of course, the theater, but we also know the Irish have gallivanted round the globe. (Of all the great immigrations to America in the 19th century, more Irish stayed here and fewer returned to their native countries than any other immigrant group. Happily my great-greats among them in the 1880's, supposedly from Wicklow and/or Cork. But that is another theme.) I'm not trying for poetic criticism here, just the sounds of the words, and the feelings poems give rise in us, overtones as it were. Heaney often writes about language and words. Consider,

A New Song

I met a girl from Derrygarve
And the name, a lost potent musk,
Recalled the river's long swerve,
A kingfisher's blue bolt at dusk

And stepping stones like black molars
sunk in the ford, the shifty glaze
Of the whirlpool, the Moyola
Pleasuring beneath alder trees.

And Derrygarve, I thought, was just
Vanished music, twilit water,
A smooth libation of the past
Poured by this chance vestal daughter.

But now our river tongues must rise
From licking deep in native haunts
To flood, with vowelling embrace,
Demesnes staked out in consonants.

And Castledawson we'll enlist
And Upperlands, each planted bawn-
Like bleaching-greens resumed by grass-
A vocable, as rath and bullaun.

Vocable is a word that is spoken aloud. A rath is a hill or mound. A 'bullaun' is a deep hemispherical cup hollowed out of a rock. Bullaun Stone refers to the rock itself, which can have many bullauns in it, although many are single. "...vowelling embrace, Demesnes staked out in consonants." Beautiful stuff. One more.


Somebody lets up a blind.
The shrub at the window
Glitters, a mint of green leaves
Pitched and tossed.

When we stopped for lights
In the centre, pigeons were down
On the street, a scatter
Of cobbles, clucking and settling.

We went at five miles an hour.
A tut-tutting colloquy
Was in session, scholars
Arguing through until morning

In a Pompeian silence.
The dummies watched from the window
Displays as we slipped to the sea.
I got away out by myself

On a scurf of winkles and cockles
And found myself suddenly
Unable to move without crunching
Acres of their crisp delicate turrets.
As they say, read all of it. Any other Heaney or Yeats readers looking in?

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