Posted on 08/31/2013

Photo taken on February 26, 2011

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I Hope He Was Not Scared

I Hope He Was Not Scared
“The riverbed, dried-up, half full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees”

Seamus Heaney said during an interview in 2006 in a segment having to do with The Haw Lantern after these dedicatory lines were noted by him as being his favourite in that collection: “That settles it. You know? Obligation, earnest attention, documentary responsibility – fine. But what about the river in the trees, boy? Poetry has to be that, and it’s very hard to get there.”

News of Seamus Heaney’s death on August 30th, 2013, came with a momentary loss of breath followed by unbidden random episodes throughout the day of not needing my obsessive eyedrops. I am sure I’m not the only one. The foremost thought and feeling throughout my day was that I hoped he was not scared at the end. It seems to me that being scared is the worst, beyond pain or worry.

Yeats might have said that this ended Heaney’s time “between his two eternities”. A line that could be thought of as the brief duration [is it really as brief as we so often see it?] between the eternity prior to birth and that which follows death; though the reference specifically by Yeats (he says so in the poem) means the eternities of race and soul. Which would also apply. But I like the pre and post birth interpretation better and all of the English teachers I fondly remember would have agreed that while a poet may compose the reader may dispose.

So at this major aesthetic turn, I just want to give my English-speaking, non-Irish, not-knowledgeable-about-history-or-current-events view that I developed over the years and which steadfastly called me back to this poetry during hundreds of ups and downs. As one critic has put it, poetry is for those times. I won’t be long.

First, the critique about Seamus’s poetry being “accessible and approachable” is exaggerated and over-emphasized. Or maybe not so but rather that it is a remark made so frequently without a discussion of the How Of It. Too long a subject for a photoblog to consider either why “accessible and approachable” can be misunderstood or to attempt to dissect the mechanisms. In a beautiful lecture in 1974, called Feeling into Words, which opens with a transfixing quote by Wordsworth (yes, he also wrote the blather about daffodils but everyone makes mistakes, even Presidents), Seamus goes far into the How Of It which starts out as any good analysis should with the general view: what is poetry? Amongst the answers to this question is that poetry is a revelation of the self to the self. BTW, I do not find it "easy" to understand if that is what is meant by "accessible and approachable". For example, it was a long time before I understood much of The Human Chain which was given to me by the FS.

Second, the accessibility (after awhile you can’t but call to mind the CARF rehabilitation care standards having to do with accessibility, which serves to satirize the critique) is partly achieved because the language is precise and, therefore, only uses as many words as are strictly needed and which do not obfuscate by drawing attention to themselves as themselves aside from their contribution to the whole as they are joined in the poem. It is what allows the poems to go within a few lines from the simple youth of a Vietnam Veteran (“having to bear his farmboy self again / His shaving cuts, . . . “) to something that touches whatever the edges of the universe might be conceived to be ( “. . . , his otherworldly brow.”). Or from the limit of an Atlantic ocean harbour to something limitless: “Air and ocean known as antecedents / Of each other. In apposition with / Omnipresence, equilibrium, brim.” Or from a musing about the meanings of the word “lightening” to the sublime:

“The phenomenal instant when the spirit flares
With pure exhilaration before death ---
The good thief in us harking to the promise!

So paint him on Christ’s right hand, on a promontory
Scanning empty space, so body-racked he seems
Untranslatable into the bliss

Ached for at the moon-rim of his forehead,
By nail-craters on the dark side of his brain:
This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.”

When I read this aloud, I think the last line should be read as equally stressed hammer blows. Regardless of what you include in your system of beliefs, if this excerpt doesn’t give you a chill, you’re watching too much TV.

Which is a nice way to wrap up my personal commemoration: the third thing that I think is remarkable is that the poems are always busy translating. I did not use to phrase it like this but a critic’s remarks about The Human Chain being largely a collection in which translation is the abiding thematic framework or tying thread convinced me. Obviously, he translated many works into English, he translated some things into English but a specific type of translation which also translated into a culture and time versus only a language. I came to think of it (prior to reading this very broad idea of “translation”) as the kind of translation that occurs in a natural force transformation. The way a transformer works, converting one form of energy into another. Sometimes this is an augmentation and sometimes a diminishment or as in music (“sing me to where the music comes from”), a crescendo or diminuendo. Sometimes it is a different form entirely as in the broadest example which is static energy to kinetic. Watch spring to moving hands to telling the time of day to the position of the earth in relation to the static sun. Wood to fire. And so on.

So along with the other two main characteristics, I would add this third one which is what allows the sometimes fascinating, sometimes transfixing morphings you can find throughout his poetry where you think right now you’re dealing with sound but it is about color and texture. Or it is about the ocean and the wind and a drive he is recommending but then suddenly it is about the heart being caught off guard and being blown open. It is a sort of living, breathing synesthesia. I am always left having to stop reading and set it aside and saying wow how did he do that? I have come in the last few years to see this poetry as being as important to the advancement of the use of English as Shakespeare’s contribution. I realize my opinion isn’t derived from formal education. Hey, so shoot me! Call me an outsider.

For someone in my circumstances and history and as a sort of cautionary piece of advice about life from Seamus Heaney, I would end this with these lines from Fosterling:

“. . .
My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind.

Heaviness of being. And poetry
Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens.
Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of the tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten,
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.”

Ethan John, Hei_De.R have particularly liked this photo