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Arts and Culture

Donald Fanger on Seamus Heaney

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Posted on Feb 26, 2009
book cover

By Donald Fanger

(Page 2)

O’Driscoll then asks whether Heaney can recall visionary moments of that kind at later stages of his life, triggering this answer:

Out in the country, on starlit nights in Glanmore, pissing at the gable of the house, I had the usual reveries of immensity. But on a couple of other occasions that I specifically recollect, it was more a case of being overwhelmed by the work of mortal men. One morning in Berkeley, on the top floor of Wheeler Hall where the English Department is located, I was standing out on a balcony. The bricks were already warm in the sun, it was clear and summery and light-drenched; you could see the white terraces and tower blocks of San Francisco across the bay and the green trace of trees and gardens in between, and I had this visitation of—well, I don’t know what to call it ... Humanist joy? Awe? A tremendous sense of what human beings had achieved on earth. Something akin to Wordsworth’s revelation on Westminster Bridge.

 

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Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney

 

By Dennis O’Driscoll

 

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 560 pages

 

Buy the book

 

There is a lot here about how poetry comes into being. Speaking of Robert Lowell’s “epoch-making poems like ‘For the Union Dead’ and ‘Near the Ocean,’ Heaney explains: “They came from where he was cornered, in himself and his times, and were the equivalent of escapes, surges of inner life vaulting up and away. Every true poem arrives like that, with self-consciousness giving way to self-forgetfulness in the glee of finding the words.” An aside on Lorca finds him making the same point in other terms, finding in the Spanish poet’s essay on duende an implication “that poetry requires an inner flamenco, that it must be excited into life by something peremptory, some initial strum or throb that gets you started and drives you farther than you realized you could go.” “The image I have,” he writes later, “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.”

One striking example comes in his discussion of the famous lines from his early poem “Digging.” Heaney explains: “In the case of the pen ‘between my finger and my thumb’, ‘snug as a gun’, and all the rest of it, I was responding to an entirely phonetic prompt, a kind of sonic chain dictated by the inner ear. It’s the connection between the ‘uh’ sounds in ‘thumb’ and ‘snug’ and ‘gun’ that are the heart of the poetic matter rather than any sociological or literary formation.” That aural susceptibility is everywhere on display in this book, as when he comments: “I always hear the tinkle of a whitesmith’s hammer in the word ‘tinker’, the rim of a tin can being beaten trim”—or when he speaks of “poems full of linguistic burr and clinker.” (“If I couldn’t altogether escape an Irishy/Britishy formality,” he comments, “I had an inclination from the start to dishevel it. I’ve always been subject to a perverse urge to galumph rather than glide.”)

One can see in this a fidelity to his country childhood. One sees it everywhere, of course. It is the root of his being as of his doing, what is there to be preserved for its own sake and transcended for the sake of poetry. Speaking at one point of “visionary gleam,” he compares the terms of his own with those of Yeats: “My starlight came in over the half-door of a house with a clay floor, not over the dome of a Byzantine palace; and in a hollowed-out part of the floor, there was a cat licking up the starlit milk.”

Something of that same persistence underlies Heaney’s remarks on religious belief. Noting his loss of faith, he comments on words like transubstantiation and real presence that “the potency of those words remains for me, they retain an undying tremor and draw; I cannot disavow them.” This is not self-division but a paradoxical wholeness, and it serves Heaney well by allowing him a deep (because sympathetic) understanding of prayer as what he calls a key piece of equipment in the lives of others—as, for example, in the case of his mother’s life:

The longer I live the more I’m aware of the siege she must have experienced in body and spirit for the first two decades of her marriage—a child arriving almost every year to begin with, then being cooped up in a small house, the family crowding in and growing up around her, living in a farm kitchen, her body thickening—some reinforcement was required and I believe it came from prayer and religious understanding. Religion in some sense “equipped” her. Identification of a mother’s suffering with the suffering mother of Christ. Praying for strength to bear up. As she recited the rosary, you could almost hear a defiance in the strength of her voice announcing the mysteries and leading the Hail Marys, as if she knelt to give challenge to the conditions. And then the invocation of the names of the Virgin in the litany—“Tower of Ivory, House of Gold, Refuge of Sinners, Health of the Sick, Morning Star, Star of the Sea”—it now seems to me to have been the redress of praying.


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By Christopher, February 16, 2011 at 8:48 pm Link to this comment
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I love reading Donald Fanger. Thanks for this review.

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By Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, March 13, 2009 at 5:43 pm Link to this comment
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What an exhilarating review of what is evidently an exhilarating book!  As someone drawn to both poetry AND prayer, I find Fanger’s (and Heaney’s) reflections on transcendence enlivening.  This review was a wonderful read.  Thank you, Professor Fanger.

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By Ed Harges, February 27, 2009 at 6:31 pm Link to this comment

Poetry is best read to oneself, whether alone or aloud.

The practice of public poetry reading as performance is mostly an inferior form of music or drama, inflicted on gullible audiences by people who can’t really act, sing, or play an instrument, but who hope that merely by reading a well-written text aloud they will garner for themselves some of the glory that properly belongs only to the writer.

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