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“Had I Not Been Awake”

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rise and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it,

It came and went so unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Returning like an animal to the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
After. And not now.

-Seamus Heaney

This poem is from Heaney’s recent volume, Human Chain. Thank you to my dear freshly marrieds, Anne and David, for giving this book to me and knowing how much I love Heaney’s work.

Note: I am in California for a week. Time with my daughter in LA. Dinner at Animal. Seeing the new Resnick Wing of LACMA. Visiting the Irwin gardens at the Getty. Performance of “Ruined” by Lynn Nottage. Visiting with dear friends, both in LA and SF. Blue Bottle coffee. Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building. So glad I’ll be awake for all of it.

I will return on Monday October 11.



Seamus Heaney. He’s a legend, at home and abroad. The first time I traveled through Ireland 10 years ago, I was incredulous to find his books for sale at the grocery check out counter and at the petrol station. While we get People magazine shoved in our faces, the Irish get volumes of Heaney. But let’s face it, the Irish have an ongoing love affair with language, spoken or sung.

I have drawn on Seamus’ wisdom, both in poetry and prose, many times. I have heard him read his work as well, and his soulfulness is palpable and reassuring. Even with his grandfatherly mien and the whitening hair, he still has an irrepressible sense of alertness. He is (and always will be, we hope) a man who continues to careen through language and life.

Here’s more Heaney life wisdom, from a piece by Tim Rutten at the Los Angeles Times.

Seamus Heaney, the greatest living English-language poet, turned 70 this week.

The Irish, of course, take their poets more seriously than most — and they take their Nobel laureates, of whom Heaney is the fourth, very seriously indeed. Monday, then, was quite a day for the Derry-born farmer’s son now known to literary Dublin’s sharp-tongued gossips as “famous Seamus.”

Famous he surely is. In the United Kingdom last year, two-thirds of all books sold by a living poet were by Heaney — and this despite the fact that he once protested his inclusion in “The Penguin Book of English Verse” with these tart lines: “Be advised, my passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen.” No wonder that on a recent visit to The Times, Irish President Mary McAleese recited one of Heaney’s poems from memory.

Ireland commemorated his birthday with an exhibit of art inspired by his work, with newly written string quartets and a symphony based on his poems, and with a nationally televised documentary on his life and writings. More than 400 invited guests listened to the poet deliver a birthday address, which was broadcast live over one of the national radio stations, and, afterward, there followed more than 12 continuous hours of Heaney in recorded readings of his collected poems.

This being the world in which we live, you can see the documentary on YouTube, and the address is on the Web as well. The collected poems will be available shortly in a 15-disc boxed set. As the poet told the Irish Times on Monday, along with “the mystery of poetry there was the marketing of product … and commoditization comes with a certain amount of artistic acceptance.”

But don’t be fooled by Heaney’s nod to commerce; his poems, which, as the Swedish Academy noted in 1995, “exalt everyday miracles and the living past,” are not likely to be traded on anyone’s exchange. The current economic downturn has hit Ireland harder than most countries, and its people have been deeply shaken by the prospect that this remarkable period of prosperity — the first Ireland has known since before the Great Famine and the only period since then in which emigration has been negligible– may be coming to an end.

In a recent interview, Heaney said he was often asked what the value of poetry was during times of economic recession. The answer, he explained, is that it is at just such moments of crisis that people realize that they do not live by economics alone. “If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness,” Heaney said.

At first, that may seem like a quaint observation — one of those poet-as-holy-fool lines. Yet an effort to “fortify your inward side,” Heaney explained to another questioner, can act as a kind of “immune system” against material difficulties.

Now hard times are hard times, and those who see a chance for self-improvement in painful adversity are usually spared the opportunity. But there is something compelling about the notion that, as the most successful materialists in the history of the world, we in the United States and Western Europe might somehow rediscover what we all used to unselfconsciously call “inwardness.”

What a turn that would be, a process that would involve periods of silence and moments when we turn things off. Imagine supermarket aisles free of cellphone conversations in which exasperated people debate potato chip selections with whomever is talking into those creepy earpieces. Imagine being disconnected — even from listening to Seamus Heaney read his collected poems on your hand-held device. Imagine putting our material difficulties aside for even a brief period.

It doesn’t seem imminent, exactly. But you never know. There’s something a bit heartening on the inwardness front in the latest retail sales figures. They show that while overall purchases fell 9.9% over the last two months, sales of books only declined 3.2%. Could that be a trend — one of those “mustard seeds” that President Obama’s economic advisors keep talking about — pointing toward a rediscovery of “inwardness”?

As Heaney wrote in his play, “The Cure at Troy,” based on Sophocles’ “Philoctetes”: “History says, Don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.”

The intensity of the last week and the death of two friends in such a short period of time have been a strong wind sailing me straight into a setting sun. I haven’t been to my studio for over a week. In spite of deadlines for upcoming shows I am allowing my hands to lie fallow, to nest the quietude of my grief. And while my sorrow has silenced my expression, I am being nested by a husband who knows how to nurture my sadness. Painting and sex are the two great revitalizers of my life, and I am at my finest when both are in flow. I’ll be back in the studio soon, but thank god for both of these life-giving gestures.

This passage from Seamus Heaney’s collection of prose, Finders Keepers, spoke deeply to me. I want to share a few passages with my poetry-loving readers from his essay, Feeling Into Words.

I intend to retrace some paths into what William Wordsworth called in the ‘The Prelude’ “the hiding places”:

The hiding-places of my power
Seem open; I approach, and then they close;
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all, and I would give,
While yet we may, as far as words can give,
A substance and a life to what I feel:
I would enshrine the spirit of the past
For future restoration.

Implicit in these lines is a view of poetry which I think is implicit in the few poems I have written that give me any right to speak: poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura and authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants.

Digging, one of Heaney’s most famous poems was also the first poem where he believed he had been able to get his feelings into words. Or more accurately, get his “feel” into words.

This was the first place where I felt I had done more than make an arrangement of words: I felt that I had let down a shaft into real life.

Like an old friend who drops in and ends up staying a few days, Seamus Heaney has been on my mind ever since I read those few lines I posted yesterday.

Here’s a short poem by him that delights, enchants, creates longing (the good kind.)


A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

–Seamus Heaney


I found a passage from a poem by Seamus Heaney, quite by chance. It stopped me in my tracks:

”The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life.”

Just coming out of a long period of living life beneath the surface of things, those words cut through to the bone. So I went in search of the poem in its entirety. In the process of looking, I found an article about Heaney in the New York Times, written by Francis X. Clines in 1983. Heaney is one of my favorite poets, and this article was full of such insightful gems that I can’t help but share a few.

Heaney is wary of the puff power of words and of the poet’s surface calling, which he senses as especially threatening in America, to offer tidy comforts. At times suspicious of the beauty of his own verse, Heaney, these days, can watch the laurels come. He fights to keep things basic, to re-mind himself of the simple wisdom of Finn MacCool, Ireland’s mythic national hero, that the best music in the world is the music of what happens. In his ”Elegy,” dedicated to Lowell, Heaney reminded himself, ”The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.”

He opens his own poetry notebook to remind himself again of the warning of the late French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: ”What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”

”That’s a wonderfully resonant idea,” Heaney says, talking with some of the awe of the postulant himself. ”If I could make poetry that could touch into that kind of thing, that is what I would like to do.”

As a poet, Heaney holds with the lesson laid down by Yeats: ”If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has that same root.”

In his conversation and classes, Heaney particularly cherishes and quotes Wordsworth and Yeats, and prizes their habit of composing aloud. ”Poetry as a revelation of the self to the self,” is one thing he finds in Wordsworth. In Yeats, he says, it’s the relation between the process and the finished poem: ”From the beginning things had to be well made, the soul had to be compelled to study, the images had to be masterful.”

He seems to find advice everywhere, agreeing with Robert Graves’s ”Dance on Words” – ”To make them move/you should start from lightning.” And with Whitman: ”Make the works. Do not go into criticisms or arguments at all. Make full blooded, rich, natural works.” From his earliest layman-reader’s enthusiasm with Gerard Manley Hopkins, through Lowell’s critical blessing, then friendship, extended during the American poet’s visits to Ireland, Heaney seems to relish whatever place he holds, promising or small, in the poetic tradition. He hardly pleases everyone. Some critics sensed an early failing – ”a marked reluctance to strike inwards, to cross the threshold, to explore the emotional and the psychological sources of his fear,” as one put it. But others feel Heaney’s later sonnet writings deal well with this. The critic Donald Hall wrote in The Nation of a range of Heaney themes and attributes – love, violence, desire, memory, intelligence -but then he added: ”For all the qualities I list, the most important is song.”

Heaney wants to be purged of poets’ tricks and perhaps for that reason he is willing to try to let a layman know how a poem is made. ”Of course, the reward of finishing the thing is pre-eminent still, perhaps,” he explains. ”But it’s much challenged by the actual pleasure of feeling something under your hand and growing.”

Heaney is a poet mindful of what he calls the ”amphibious” nature of Yeats. ”He lived the amphibious inner and outer life so well,” says Heaney. He smiles and summarizes the trick of the poet as if it were in mechanics, not magic: ”Being in two places at once is, of course, the only way.”

The statement is less casual than it seems, for Heaney’s poetry is marked by the amphibious, by the narrative lyric rooted in the outer life of place but nourished from his inner life. What he feels was his first real poem, ”Digging,” may still be, 19 years after its composition, the best introduction to Heaney’s voice.

”The political implications of lyric art are quite reactionary,” Heaney says. ”You are saying to people, ‘Everything’s all right.’ And, in fact, one of the things America exposes you to quite radically is people’s hunger to be comforted. And it’s very moving, and it’s authentic, but somehow you get co-opted into a language of comfort that is quite bogus.”

For his opening classes at Harvard, Heaney usually prescribes selections from East European poets, stark verse that is hardly the language of bogus comfort, but is ”antipoetry, a kind of wiresculpture poetry,” in which he finds that ”the density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

Francis X. Clines
New York Times