Seamus Heaney - Quotations (1/5): Poetry

Selected Poetry Selected Prose Longer Extracts
[ Index ]

A Selection of Poems by Seamus Heaney

File 1: Selected Poetry
“The Follower”
“Personal Helicon”
“The Peninsula”
“Gallarus Oratory”
“A New Song”
“Death of a Naturalist”
“The Forge”
“The Other Side”
“The Tollund Man”
“Mossbawn (I & II)”
“Whatever You Say, Say Nothing”
“Glanmore Sonnets”
“Sweeney in Flight”
“An Open Letter”
“The Ministry of Fear”
“The Diviner”
“A New Song”
“Funeral Rites”
“The Flight Path”
“A Kite for Michael & Christopher”
“Station Island”
The Cure of Troy (1990)
“The Stone Verdict”
“Seeing Things”
“The Skylight”
“A Sofa in the ’Forties”
“The Gravel Walks”
“Dante among the Giants”
“Horace & Thunder”
“Known World”

The Burial at Thebes
“Beacons at Bealtaine”
“The Ajax Incident”
“District and Circle”
“The Blackbird of Glanmore”
“Saw Music”
“A Kite for Aibhín”
“A Herbal”
“The Birch Grove”
“Banks of a Canal”
“Alphabets” “Song” “Clearances” Lightenings
[ index ]

Shelf Life

Glimmerings are what the soul’s composed of.
Fogged-up challenges, far conscience-glitters
and hang-dog, half-truth earnests of true love.
And a whole late-flooding thaw of ancestors43.

Station island (1984), p.23

‘Once and only once I fired a gun - / A .22. At a square handkerchief / Pinned on a tree sixty yards away. // It exhilarated me - the bullet’s song / So effortlessly at my finger-tip, / The targetְs single little shocking jerk, // A whole new quickening sense of what rifle meant. / and then again as it was in the beginning / I saw the soul like a white cloth snatched away // Across dark galaxies and felt that shot / For the sin it was against eternal life - / Another phrase dilating in new light.’
—“Settings xxi”, in Seeing Things (1991); posted on Facebook by ANOther (Feb. 2023).
Cf. “The Bullet’s Song” in The Haw Lantern:

The First Gloss

Take hold of the shaft of the pen.
Subscribe to the first step taken
from a justified line
into the margin.

—“Sweeney Redivivus”, in Station Island (1984)
The Errand

‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil
And tell your mother to try
To find me a bubble for the spirit level
And a new knot for this tie.’

But still he was glad, I know, when I stood my ground,
Putting it up to him
With a smile that trumped his smile and his fool’s errand,
Waiting for the next move in the game.

The Spirit Level (1996), p.54.

Digging”: ‘Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests: snug as a gun. // Under my window, a clean rasping sound / When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: / My father, digging. I look down // Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low, comes up twenty years away / Stooping in rhythm through potato drills / Where he was digging. [// ...] By God the old man could handle a spade. / Just like his old man. // [... ] But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. // Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” (Death of a Naturalist, Faber 1966, [p.3]; rep. in Opened Ground (Faber 1998), pp.3-4; see full-text version in RICORSO Library, as attached.) [Note: The poem is printed, read and interpreted on the BBC GCSE “Bitesize” website - online; accessed 18.03.2014].

The Follower View as single sheet - here.

The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday
Mornings when the mint was cut and loved:
My last things will be first things slipping from me.
Yet let all things go free that have survived.

Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against
Because we’d failed them by our disregard.

My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

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

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

  —From Death of a Naturalist (1966), pp.24-25.

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Personal Helicon” (ded. to Michael Longley): ‘As a child, they could not keep me from wells / And old pumps with buckets and windlasses. / I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells / Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss. // One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top. / I savoured the rich crash when a bucket / Plummeted down at the end of a rope. / So deep you saw no reflection in it. // A shallow one under a dry stone ditch / Fructified like any aquarium. / When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch / A white face hovered over the bottom. // Others had echoes, gave back your own call / With a clean new music in it. And one / Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall / Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection. // Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime, / To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring / Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’ (Death of A Naturalist, London: Faber & Faber 1966, p.57 [final poem]; New Selected Poems 1966-1987, London: Faber & Faber 1990, p.9; also given on WWW Heaney Page. )

The Peninsula”: ‘When you have nothing more to say, just drive / For a day all round the peninsula. / The sky is tall as over a runway. / The without marks so you will not arrive // But pass through, though always skirting landfall. / At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill, / The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable / And you’re in the dark again. Now recall the glazed foreshore and silhouetted log, / That rock where breakers shredded into rags, / The leggy birds stilted on their own legs, / Islands riding themselves out into the fog // And drive back home, still with nothing to say / Except that now you will uncode all landscapes / By this: things founded clean on their own shapes, / Water and ground in their extremity.’ (New Selected Poems 1966-1987, 1990, p.11; quoted in Conor Doris, UG Essay, UUC 2003; note the relation to Heaney’s interest in John Montague’s remarks on the landscape as ‘a manuscript which we have lost the skill to read’: “The Sense of Place”, Preoccupations, 1980, p.131-49; 132.)

Gallarus Oratory”: ‘You can still feel the community packs / This palace; it’s like going into a turfstack, / A core of old dark walled up with stone / A yard thick. When you’re in it alone / You might have dropped, a reduced creature / To the heart of the globe. No worshipper / Would leap up to his God off this floor.’ (Quoted in Eileen Battersby, ‘Dingle’s Beautiful Enigma’, in The Irish Times, 16 June 2001.)

Toome”: ‘My mouth holds round the soft blastings, / Toome, Toome / As under the dislodged // Slab of the tongue / I push the into a souterrain / Prospecting what new // In a hundred centuries // Loam, flint, musket-balls, / Fragmented aware,/Torcs and fishbones / Till I am sleeved in.’ (Quoted by Mark Hughes, UG Essay, UUC 2002.)


Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

—From Death of a Naturalist (1966); rep. in Opened Ground (1998).
Note: There is a YouTube recording of Heaney reading this poem for Faber in NY - online; accessed 15.07.2018.) It is also features as a mural in The Home Place (Bellaghy, Co. Londonderry).

Death of a Naturalist”: ‘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. [//...//] Then one hot day when fields were rank / With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs / Invaded the flax-dam; [.../] 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.’ (In Death of a Naturalist, Faber 1966; rep. in Opened Ground, Faber 1998, pp.5-6; for full text version, see RICORSO Library, as attached.) [A copy is available on Heaney page of Emory University’s Beck Library page on the Belfast Group of Northern Irish Poets [online].

The Forge

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

Door into the Dark, 1969

Bogland” (ded. T. P. Flanagan): ‘We have no prairies / To slice a big sun at evening - / Everywhere the eye concedes to / Encrouching horizon, // Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye / Of a tarn. Our unfenced country / Is bog that keeps crusting / Between the sights of the sun. // They’ve taken the skeleton / Of the Great Irish Elk / Out of the peat, set it up / An astounding crate full of air. // Butter sunk under / More than a hundred years / Was recovered salty and white. / The ground itself is kind, black butter // Melting and opening underfoot, / Missing its last definition / By millions of years. / They’ll never dig coal here, // Only the waterlogged trunks / Of great firs, soft as pulp. / Our pioneers keep striking / Inwards and downwards, // Every layer they strip / Seems camped on before. / The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. / The wet centre is bottomless.’ (Door into the Dark, 1969; New Selected Poems 1966-1987, 1990, p.17; also given on WWW Heaney Internet Page.) [See page-format version, attached.]

Cf.: ‘the fish full of fish like a bog full of turf’, in “Raftery’s Killeadan”, after Antoine Raftery, in Éire-Ireland, Fall/Winter 1996, pp.9-10, p.10.

The Tollund Man”: ‘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. // [II:] 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. // [III:] / 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 there in Jutland / In the old man-killing parishes / I will feel lost, / Unhappy and at home.’ (from Wintering Out, p.47; given on the WWW Heaney Page; see print-version, attached.)

Wedding Day

I am afraid.
Sound has stopped in the day
And the images reel over
And over. Why all those tears,

The wild grief on his face
Outside the taxi? The sap
Of mourning rises
In our waving guests.

You sing behind the tall cake
Like a deserted bride
Who persists, demented,
And goes through the ritual.

When I went to the Gents
There was a skewered heart
And a legend of love. Let me
Sleep on your breast to the airport.

From Wintering Out (1972), p.57.

The Other Side

Thigh deep in sedge and marigolds
a neighbour laid his shadow
on the stream, vouching

“It’s poor as Lazarus, that ground,”
and brushed away
among the shaken leafage.

I lay where his lea sloped
to meet our fallow,
nested in moss and rushes,

my ear swallowing
his fabulous, biblical dismissal,
that tongue of chosen people.

When he would stand like that
on the other side, white-haired,
swinging his blackthorn

at the marsh weeds,
he prophesised above our scraggy acres,
then turned away

towards his promised furrows
on the hill, a wake of pollen
drifting to our bank, next season’s tares.

For days we would reherse
each patriarchal dictum:
Lazarus, the Pharoah, Solomon

and David and Goliath rolled
magnificently, like loads of hay
too big for our small lanes,

or faltered on a rut -
“Your side of the house, I believe,
hardly rules by the book at all.”

His brain was a whitewashed kitchen
hung with texts, swept tidy
as the body o’ the kirk.

Then sometimes when the rosary was dragging
mournfully on in the kitchen
we would hear his step around the gable

though not until after the litany
would the knock come to the door
and the casual whistle strike up

on the doorstep. “A right-looking night,”
he might say, “I was dandering by
and says I, I might as well call.”

But now I stand behind him
in the dark yard, in the mourn of prayers.
He puts his hand in a pocket

or taps a little tune with the blackthorn
shyly, as if he were party to
lovemaking or a strangers weeping.

Should I slip away, I wonder,
or go up and touch his shoulder
and talk about the weather

or the price of grass-seed?

—From Wintering Out (1972), p.34; posted on Facebook by Peter Quinn [04.03.2016].

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Punishment”: ‘I can feel the tug / of the halter at the nape / of her neck, the wind / on her naked front. // It blows her nipples / to amber beads, it shakes the frail rigging / of her ribs. // I can see her drowned / body in the bog / the weighing stone, / the floating rods and boughs. // Under which at first / she was a barked sapling / that is dug up / oak-bone, brain-firkin: // her shaved heard / like a stubble of black corn, / her blindfold of soiled bandage, / her noose a ring // to store / the memories of love. / Little adulteress, before they punished you // you were flaxen-haired, / undernourished, and your / tar-black face was beautiful. / My poor scapegoat, // I almost love you / but would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence. / I am the artful voyeur // of your brain’s exposed / and darkened combs, / your muscles’ webbing and all your numbered bones: // I who have stood dumb / when your betraying sisters, / cauled in tar, wept by the railings, // who would connive / in civilised outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge.’ (North, 1975, p.38; rep. in Selected Poems, 1990, pp.71-72; Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, 1998, pp.117-18.)

Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication” for Mary Heaney [his mother], I: “Sunlight”: ‘There was a sunlit absence. /The helmeted pump in the yard / heated its iron, / watter honeyed // in the slung bucket / and the sun stood / like a griddle cooling / against the wall // of each long afternoon. / So, her hand scuffled / over the bakeboard, / the reddening stove // sent its plaque of heat / against her where she stood / in a floury apron / by the window. // Now she dusts the board / with a goose’s wing, / now sits, broad-lapped, / with whitening nails [8] // and measling shins: / here is a space / again, the scone rising / to the tick of two clocks. // And here is love / like a tinsmith’s scoop / sunk past its gleam / in the meal-bin.’ (North, London: Faber & Faber 1975 , pp.8-9; rep. in Opened Ground, London: Faber & Faber 1998, p.93-94.) [For Heaney’s remarks in interview on the origin of the poem, see “Mossbawn” in Notes, infra; also more extended remarks in the article of the same title under Heaney > Quotations > Prose - infra.]

Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication” for Mary Heaney, II: “The Seed Cutters”: ‘They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel, / You’ll know them if I can get them true. / They kneel under the hedge in a half-circle/ Behind a windbreak wind is breaking through. / They are the seed cutters. The tuck and frill / Of leaf-sprout is on the seed potatoes / Buried under that straw. With time to kill / They are taking their time. Each sharp knife goes / Lazily halving each root that falls apart / In the palm of the hand: a milky gleam, / And, at the centre, a dark watermark. / O calendar customs! Under the broom / Yellowing over them, compose the frieze / With all of us there, our anonymities.’ (from North, p.10; rep. in Opened Ground, Poems 1966-1996, Faber 1998, p.93-95; p.95.)

North”: ‘I return to a long strand, / the hammered curve of a bay, / and found only the secular / powers of the Atlantic thundering. // I faced the unmagical / invitation of Iceland, / the pathetic colonies / of Greenland, and suddenly // those fabulous raiders, / those lying in Orkney and Dublin / measured against / their long swords rusting, // those in the solid / belly of stone ships, / those hacked and glinting / in the gravel of thawed streams // were ocean-deafened voices / warning me, lifted again / in violence and epiphany. / The longship’s swimming tongue // was buoyant with hindsight - / it said Thor’s hammer swung / to geography and trade, thick-witted couplings and revenges, / the hatreds and behind-backs / of the althing, lies and women, exhaustions nominated peace, / memory, incubating, the spilled blood. // It said, “Lie down / in the word-hoard, burrow / the coil and gleam / of your furrowed brain. // Compose in darkness. Expect aurora borealis / in the long foraw / but no cascade of light. // Keep your eye clear / as the bleb of the icicle, / trust the feel of what nubbed treasure / your hands have known.”’ (from North, 1972 [q.p.; rep. in Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, 1998, pp.100-01.)

“Whatever You Say, Say Nothing”


I’m writing this after an encounter
With an English journalist in search of ‘views
On the Irish thing’. I’m back in winter
Quarters where bad news is no longer news,

Where media-men and stringers sniff and point,
Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads
Litter the hotels. The times are out of joint
But I incline as much to rosary beads

As to the jottings and analyses
Of politicians and newspapermen
Who”ve scribbled down the long campaign from gas
And protest to gelignite and Sten,

Who proved upon their pulses “escalate”,
“Backlash” and “crack down”, “the provisional wing”,
“Polarization” and “long-standing hate”.
Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing,

Expertly civil-tongued with civil neighbours
On the high wires of first wireless reports,
Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours
Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts:

“Oh, it”s disgraceful, surely, I agree.”
“Where”s it going to end?” “It”s getting worse.”
“They”re murderers.” “Internment, understandably ...”
The “voice of sanity” is getting hoarse.



“Religion’s never mentioned here,” of course.
“You know them by their eyes,” and hold your tongue.
“One side’s as bad as the other,” never worse.
Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was sprung.

In the great dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade,
I am incapable. The famous

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the “wee six” I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, say nothing.

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Maneouvring to find out name and school,
Subtle discriminations by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,

Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
Where half of us, as in a wooden horse,
Were cabin’d and confined like wily Greeks,
Beseiged within the siege, whispering morse.



This morning from a dewy motorway
I saw the new camp for the internees:
A bomb had left a crater of fresh clay
In the roadside, and over in the trees

Machine-gun posts defined a real stockade.
There was that white mist you get on a low ground
And it was déjà-vu, some film made
Of Stalag 17, a bad dream with no sound.

Is there a life before death? That’s chalked up
In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,
Coherent miseries, a bite and sup:
We hug our little destiny again.

—from North (1972), p.57-60; rep. in Opened Ground (1998), pp.131-33 [Pts. I, III, IV]; available at Blue Ridge Journal - online; accessed 25.10.2017.

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Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.

Alive and violated,
They lay on their bed of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.

We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.

Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege

And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

—in Field Work (1979) [opening poem]; rep. in Opened Ground (1996), q.pp.
  ‘He would drink by himself / And raise a weathered thumb / Towards the high shelf, / Calling another rum / And blackcurrant, without / Having to raise his voice, / Or order a quick stout / By a lifting of the eyes / And a discreet dumb-show / Of pulling off the top; / At closing time would go / In waders and peaked cap / Into the showery dark, / A dole-kept breadwinner / But a natural for work. / I loved his whole manner, / Sure-footed but too sly, / His deadpan sidling tact, / His fisherman’s quick eye / And turned observant back.

Incomprehensible /To him, my other life. /Sometimes on the high stool, / Too busy with his knife / At a tobacco plug / And not meeting my eye, / In the pause after a slug / He mentioned poetry. / We would be on our own / And, always politic / And shy of condescension, / I would manage by some trick /To switch the talk to eels /Or lore of the horse and cart / Or the Provisionals.

But my tentative art / His turned back watches too: /He was blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew /Others obeyed, three nights / After they shot dead / The thirteen men in Derry. / PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said, / BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday / Everyone held / His breath and trembled.

It was a day of cold / Raw silence, wind-blown /Surplice and soutane: /Rained-on, flower-laden / Coffin after coffin / Seemed to float from the door / Of the packed cathedral /Like blossoms on slow water. / The common funeral / Unrolled its swaddling band, / Lapping, tightening / Till we were braced and bound /Like brothers in a ring. //

But he would not be held / At home by his own crowd / Whatever threats were phoned, / Whatever black flags waved. / I see him as he turned / In that bombed offending place, / Remorse fused with terror / In his still knowable face, / His cornered outfaced stare / Blinding in the flash.

He had gone miles away / For he drank like a fish / Nightly, naturally / Swimming towards the lure / Of warm lit-up places, / The blurred mesh and murmur /Drifting among glasses / In the gregarious smoke. / How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe’s complicity? / ‘Now, you’re supposed to be / An educated man,’ / I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me / The right answer to that one.’

  I missed his funeral, / Those quiet walkers / And sideways talkers / Shoaling out of his lane / To the respectable /Purring of the hearse... /They move in equal pace / With the habitual / Slow consolation / Of a dawdling engine, / The line lifted, hand / Over fist, cold sunshine /On the water, the land / Banked under fog: that morning /I was taken in his boat, / The screw purling, turning / Indolent fathoms white, / I tasted freedom with him. / To get out early, haul / Steadily off the bottom, / Dispraise the catch, and smile / As you find a rhythm / Working you, slow mile by mile, / Into your proper haunt / Somewhere, well out, beyond ... // Dawn-sniffing revenant, /Plodder through midnight rain, /Question me again.’

—From Field Work (1979); rep. Opened Ground, Poems 1966-1996 (Faber 1998), pp.154-57; see also print-out version, attached.) Note: the victim of Loyalist violence described in the poem was Louis O’Neill. The poem is quoted in part in Andrew Waterman, ‘Somewhere, Out there, Beyond: The Poetry of Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon’, in PN Review, 8, 1 (21) [1980], pp.39-47 [as infra];

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Glanmore Sonnets” [for Ann Saddlemyer / ‘our heartiest welcomer’] I: Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground. / The mildest February for twenty years / Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound / Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors. / Our road is steaming, the turned-up acres breathe. / Now the good life could be to cross a field / And art a paradigm of earth new from the late / Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled. / Old plough-socks gorge the subsoil of each sense / And am quickened with a redolence / Of farmland as a dark unblown rose. / Wait the ... Breasting the mist, in sower’s aprons, / My ghosts come striding into their spring stations. / The dream grain whirls like freakish Easter snows.’ (Field Work, 1979; rep. in Opened Ground, 1998, pp.163ff.)

II: ‘[...] Then I landed in the hedge-school of Glanmore / And from the backs of ditches hoped to raise / A voice caught back off slug-horn and slow chanter / That might continue, hold, dispel, appease: / Vowels ploughed into other, opened ground, / Each verse returning like the plough turned round.’ [End.]

III: ‘[...] I had said earlier, “I won’t relapse / From this strange loneliness I’ve brought us too. / Dorothy and William -” She interrupts: / “You’re not going to compare us two ...?”/ Outside a rustling and twig-combing breeze / refeshes and relents. Is cadences.’

IX: ‘[...] What is my apology for poetry? / The empty briar is swishing / When I come down, and beyond, inside, your face / Haunsts like a new moon glimpsed through tangled glass.’

Sweeney Astray—A Version from the Irish (1983):

‘[...] Sweeney kept going until he reached the church at Swim-Two-Birds on the Shannon, which is now called Cloon-burren; he arrived there on Friday to be exact. The clerics of the church were singing nones, women were beating flax and one was giving birth to a child.
  It is unseemly, said Sweeney, for the women to violate the Lord’s fast day. That woman beating the flax reminds me of our beating at Moira.
  Then he heard the vesper bell ringing and said:
  It would be sweeter to listen to the notes of the cuckoos on the banks of the Bann than the whinge of their bell tonight.
  Then he uttered the poem:

I perched for rest and imagined
cuckoos calling across water,
the Bann cuckoo, calling sweeter
than church bells that whinge and grind.

Friday is the wrong day, woman,
for you to give birth to a son,
the day when Mad Sweeney fasts
for love of God, in penitence.

Do not just discount me. Listen.
At Moira my tribe was beaten,
beetled, heckled, hammered down,
like flax being scutched by these women.

From the cliff of Lough Diolar
up to Derry Colmcille
I saw the great swans, heard their calls
sweetly rebuking wars and battles.

From lonely cliff-tops, the stag
bells and makes the whole glen shake
and re-echo. I am ravished.
Unearthly sweetness shakes my breast.

O Christ, the loving and the sinless,
hear my prayer, attend, O Christ,
and let nothing separate us.
Blend me forever in your sweetness.

[Heaney tells story of death of Sweeney from a spear-wound at the hands of a jealous husband - a swineherd called Mongan - and Sweeney’s poem on offering repentence to St. Moling and his clerics on his deathbed:]

There was a time when I preferred
the turtle-dove’s soft jubilation
as it flitted round a pool
to the murmur of conversation.

There was a time when I preferred
the blackbird singing on the hill
and the stag loud against the storm
to the clinking tongue of this bell.

There was a time when I preferred
the mountain grouse crying at dawn
to the voice and closeness
of a beautiful woman

There was a time when I preferred
wolf-packs yelping and howling
to the sheepish voice of a cleric
bleating out plainsong.

You are welcome to the pledged healths
and carouse in your drinking dens;
I will dip and steal water
from a well with my open palm.

You are welcome to that cloistered hush
of your students’ conversation;
I will study the pure chant
of the hounds baying in Glen Bolcain.

You are welcome to your salt meat
and fresh meat in feasting houses;
I will live content elsewhere
on tufts of green watercress.

The herd’s sharp spear has finished me,
passed clean through my body.
Ah Christ, who disposes all things, why
was I not killed at Moira?

Then Sweeney’s death-swoon came over him and Moling, attended by his clerics, rose up and each of them placed a stone on Sweeney’s grave.’ (Rep. in Opened Ground, 1998, pp.191-28; here pp.194-95; 206-08.)

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Fosterling” [epigraph: ‘That heavy greenness fostered by water’]: ‘At school I loved one picture’s heavy greenness - / Horizons rigged with windmills’ arms and sails. / The millhouses’ still outlines. Their in-placeness / Still more in place when mirrored in canals. / I can’t remember never having known / The immanent hydraulics of a land / Of glar and glit and floods at dailigone. / 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 tin cans / The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten, / Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.’ (In Seeing Things, 1991, p.50; rep. in Opened Ground (1998), p.357; quoted [in part] in Sarah Broom, review of John Mole, For the Moment, in Times Literary Supplement, 8 June 2001, p.25.)

Note David Wheatley, reviewing new collection by Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin, in TLS, 6 Sept. 2002, writes: ‘Seamus Heaney had to wait until he was “nearly fifty / to credit marvels”, according to Seeing Things’.

The Music of What Happens - vide

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.

—in Field Work (1976), p.56.

[ Listen to Heaney reading “Song” at Internet Poetry Archive - online. ]

Note: Finn Mac Cool [Mac Cumhall] once challenged the members of his Fianna to name the finest music in the world by his peers. One suggests the music of the lark over Dingle Bay, another the laughter of a young woman and a third, the bellowing of a stag. “No”, replies Finn. The finest music is “the music of what happens.” The original of the story is to be found in Macgnímartha Find [The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn]. The Irish writer James Stephens gave an English version of the legend in Irish Fairy Tales (1920) - citing the cuckoo on the highest tree, the clash of spear against shield in battle, the belling of a stag across water, the baying of hounds, the song of the lark, the laugher of a girl.  [See Imbasbooks - online; accessed 2001.2023.]

In a variant telling, the warrior Finn mac Cumaill is questioned by a druid who asked him what is the most beautiful music in the world. “Is it the waves of the sea crashing against the Cliffs of Moher? Is it the sound of the skylark rising over the Dingle Peninsula at dawn? Is it the sound of a butterfly hovering above daffodils on the Aran Isles in the springtime?” “No,” says Finn. “Well, what is it then?” Finn answers, “It is the music of what happens.” (See Bridget Haggarty, “The Music of What Happens”, Irish Culture and Customs - online; accessed 20.01.2023.)

Note: The Music of What Happens (2019), a TV-movie directed by Alan Low, is the title of a ‘major feature-length film about the life and work of Seamus Heaney’ comprised of interviews with and readings Heaney’s widow Marie and three children (Michael, Christopher and Catherine) along with his surviving brothers Hugh, Charlie and Colm. The first viewing was held at The Home Place on 29 Nov. 2019 and the film was broadcast on BBC2 on the following night (30th Nov.) The film was produced DoubleBand Films in association with Lone Star Productions for BBC Arts, BBC2, and BBC NI made with funding from Northern Ireland Screen. It was produced by Dermot Lavery and Martin Rosenbaum with Michael Hewitt as the Executive Producer.

The Music of What Happens (Arthur Levin Bks. Feb. 2019) is also the title of a novel by Bill Konigsberg recounting the ‘burgeoning relationship between high-schoolers Max and Jordan and how they overcome their inner demons.’ The book purportedly addresses the themes of ‘consent, toxic masculinity and acknowledging trauma’. It is listed in Amazon and also in Social Justice Books - online. [20.01.2023.]

See also Rebecca Nicholson, reviewing The Music of What Happens (film), in The Guardian 30 Nov. 2019) - That lovely title is from Song. In archive footage - and there are a lot of great interviews plundered here - ‘Heaney recalls taking it from the answer Fionn MacCool gave when asked about the best music in the world. “So I used it as the basis for a little declaration about poetry,” he explains casually, as if it were that easy. [...] His wife, Marie, to whom he was married for more than 50 years, reads “Wedding Day”. Its first line is, “I am afraid.” “Not the happiest wedding poem,” she smiles. She remembers one year that he had forgotten to get her a Christmas present. Instead, he wrote out all the love poems he had written to her, by hand, in a single notebook. From that, she reads “Scaffolding”, the camera lingering on his script. It is read, she notes, at practically every wedding in Ireland.’ (See also Noli Timere - infra.)

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Traditions”: ‘[…] Mac Morris, gallivanting / round the Globe, whinged / to courtier and groundling / who had heard of tell 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.”’ (Quoted in Laura P. Zuntini di Izarra, Mirrors and Holographic Labyrinths: [ ... ] New Synthesis in the Novels of John Banville, SF: Internat. Scholars Publ. 1999, p.17.)

An Open Letter” (1983)

Don’t be surprised
If I demur, for, be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.

Further: ‘You’ll understand I draw the line / At being robbed of what is mine, / My patris, my deep design / To be at home / In my own place and dwell within /  Its proper name  […]’ (being Heaney’s responds to his inclusion in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry ; Field Pamphl. No. 2; rep. in Seamus Deane, ed., Ireland’s Field Day, London: Hutchinson 1985, p.26.)

Note: The broadside was inspired by his inclusion in an anthology of Contemporary British Verse edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion. Later, when offered the British poet laureateship, Heaney remarked: ‘I’ve nothing against the Queen personally: I had lunch at the palace once upon a time [...] it’s just that the basis of my imagination, the basis of the cultural starting point, is off-centre.’ (Quoted by Jamie Smyth in obituary notice by in Financial Times, 30 Aug. 2013 [5 p.m. edition].)

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Singing School” (in North, 1979)
I: “The Ministry of Fear

”Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived / In important places. the lonely scarp of St. Columb’s College, where I billeted / For six years, overlooked your Bogside. I gazed into new worlds: the inflamed throat / Of Brandywell, its floodlit dogtrack, / The throttle of the hare. In the first week / I was so homesick I couldn’t even eat / The biscuits left to sweeten exile. / I threw them over the fence one night / In September 1951. / When the lights of houses in the Lecky Road / Were amber in the fog. It was an act / Of stealth. // Then Belfast, then Berkeley. / Here’s two on’s are sophisticated, / Dabbling in verse till they have become / A life: from bulky envelopes arriving in vacation time to slim volumes / Despatched “with the author’s compliments”. / Those poems in longhand, ripped from the wire spine / Of your exercise book, bewildered me - / Vowels and ideas bandied free / as the seed-pods blowing off our sycamores. / I tried to write about the sycamores / And innovated a South Derry rhyme / With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled. / Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain / Were walking, by God, all over the fine lawns of elocution. // Have our accents changed? “Catholics, in general, don’t speak / As well as students from the Protestant schools.” / Remember that stuff? Inferiority / Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on. / “What’s your name, Heaney?” / “Heaney, Father.” / “Fair enough.” // On my first day, the leather strap went epileptic in the Big Study, / Its echoes plashing over our bowed heads, / But I still wrote hom that a boarder’s life / Was not so bad, shying as usual. // On the long vacation, then, I came to life / In the kissing seat of an Austin 16 / Parked at a gable, the engine running, / My fingers tight as ivy on her shoulders, / A light left burning for her in the kitchen. / And heading back noe, the summer’s / Freedom dwindling night by night, the air / All moonlight and scent of hay, policemen / Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowded round / The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing / The muzzle of a Sten gun in my eye: “What’s your name, driver?” / ‘Seamus ...’ // Seamus? // They once read my letters at a roadblock / And shone their torches on your hieroglyphics, / “Svelte dictions” in a very florid hand. // Ulster was British, but with no rights on / The English lyric: all around us, though / We hadn’t named it, the ministry of fear.”

North, 1972, pp.63-65; rep. in Opened Ground, 1998, pp.134-36.
Singing School” [cont.]
Pt. 6: “Exposure

‘It is December in Wicklow: / Alders dripping, birches / Inheriting the last light, / The ash tree cold to look at. // A comet that was lost / Should be visible at sunset, / Those millions of tons of light / Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips, // And I sometimes see a falling star. / If I could come on meteorite! / Instead I walk through damp leaves, / Husks, the spent flukes of autumn, // Imagining a hero / On some muddy compound, / His gift like a slingstone / Whirled for the desperate. // How did I end up like this? / I often think of my friends’ / Beautiful prismatic counselling / And the anvil brains of some who hate me // As I sit weighing and weighing / My responsible tristia. / For what? For the ear? For the people? / For what is said behind-backs? // Rain comes down through the alders, / Its low conducive voices / Mutter about let-downs and erosions / And yet each drop recalls / The diamond absolutes. / I am neither internee nor informer; / An inner emigré, grown long-haired / And thoughtful; a wood-kerne // Escaped from the massacre, / Taking protective colouring / From bole and bark, feeling / Every wind that blows; // Who, blowing up these sparks / For their meagre heat, have missed / The once-in-a-lifetime portent, // The comet’s pulsing rose.’

(From North, London: Faber & Faber 1975, p.72; rep. in Opened Ground, 1998, p.143; quoted [in large part - i.e., from ‘If I could come ...’] in “Crediting Poetry”: Nobel Prize Address; reprinted in New Republic, 25 Dec. 1995, pp.27-34, p.28.)

Note: The title, “Singing School”, may be regarded as an allusion to W. B. Yeats’s line, ‘[B]e thou the singing masters of my soul’ in “Sailing to Byzantium”. if so, it implies a very different formation from that of the mystical and aloof poet who was in general, hermetically-sealed contemporary political events, or often adopted such a pose.

Further: ‘Ulster was British, but with no rights on / The English lyric: all around us, though / We hadn’t named it, the ministry of fear’. (“The Ministry of Fear”; quoted in Tony Curtis, ed., The Art of Seamus Heaney, Bridgend: Seren Books [rev. edn. 1994, p.101.)

Further: ‘In the next room / His nightmares grafted to the palace wall - / Dark cyclones, hosting, breaking; Saturn / Jewelled in the blood of his own children, / Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips / Over the world. Also, that holmgang / Where two berserks club each other to death / for honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking. // He painted with his fists and elbows / The stained cap of his heart, as history charged.’ (Quoted by Paddy Wentworth, Irish Times, March 1996).

See also “Fosterage” / for Michael McLaverty - being Part 5 of “Singing School” (North, 1979) - under McLaverty, as infra. For listing of the contents of North, see under Works, supra.

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The Frontier of Writing

The tightness and the nilness round that space
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face

towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover

and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration--

a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.

So you drive on to the frontier of writing
where it happens again. The guns on tripods;
the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating

data about you, waiting for the squawk
of clearance; the marksman training down
out of the sun upon you like a hawk.

And suddenly you're through, arraigned yet freed,
as if you'd passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road

past armor-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.

1987; given on Readings in Contemporary Poetry website (with soundtrack) - online; accessed 25.10.2017)

Mint”, ‘It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles / Growing wild at the gables of the house / Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles: / Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice. / But to be fair, it also spelt promise / And newness in the back yard of our life / As if something callow yet tenacious / Sauntered in green alleys and grew rife. // The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday / Mornings when the mint was cut and loved: / My last things will be the first things slipping from me. / Yet let all things go free that have survived. // Let the smell of mint go heady and defenceless / Like inmates liberated from that yard. / Like the disregarded ones we turned against / Because we’d failed them in our disregard.’ (The Spirit Level, 1996, p.6.; rep. in Opened Ground, 1998, p.396.)


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.


From The Spirit Level, 1996; quoted by Julie Laros, in The Drift Record (13 April 2012) - online; accessed 18.03.2104.

The Diviner”: ‘Unfussed, the pluck cam sharp as a sting, / the rod jerked down with precise convulsions / Spring water suddeny broadcasting / through a green aerial its secret stations.’

A New Song”: ‘But now our river tongues must rise / From licking deep in native haunts / To flood, with vowelling embrace, / Demesnes staked out in consonants’. (Quoted in Edna Longley, The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe 1994, p.50.)

Hind tit: ‘Long sucking the hind tit / cold as a witch’s and hard to swallow / Still leaves us fork-tongued on the border bit: / the liberal papist note is hollow.’ (Included in Padraic Fiacc, ed., The Wearing of the Green; later as part of Wintering Out.)

Funeral Rites”: ‘Now as news comes in / of each neighbourly murder / we pine for ceremony / customary rhythms … / I would restore / / the great chambers of the Boyne, prepare a sepulchre […] Quiet as a serpent / in its grassy boulevard / the procession drags its tail / out of the Gap of the North / as its head already enters / the megalithic doorway.’ (?North, 1975)

Triptych”: ‘[T]here they were, as if our memory hatched them, / As if the unquiet walked again: / Two young men with rifles on the hill, / Profane and bracing as their instruments.’ (Field Work, 1979, q.p.)

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A shadow his father makes with joined hands
And thumbs and fingers nibbles on the wall
Like a rabbit’s head. He understands
He will understand more when he goes to school.

There he draws smoke with chalk the whole first week,
Then draws the forked stick that they call a Y.
This is writing. A swan’s neck and swan’s back
Make the 2 he can see now as well as say.

Two rafters and a cross-tie on the slate
Are the letter some call ah, some call ay.
There are charts, there are headlines, there is a right
Way to hold the pen and a wrong way.

First it is ‘copying out’, and then ‘English’,
Marked correct with a little leaning hoe.
Smells of inkwells rise in the classroom hush.
A globe in the window tilts like a coloured O.


Declensions sang on air like a hosanna
As, column after stratified column,
Book One of Elementa Latina,
Marbled and minatory, rose up in him.

For he was fostered next in a stricter school
Named for the patron saint of the oak wood
Where classes switched to the pealing of a bell
And he left the Latin forum for the shade

Of new calligraphy that felt like home.
The letters of this alphabet were trees.
The capitals were orchards in full bloom,
The lines of script like briars coiled in ditches.

Here in her snooded garment and bare feet,
All ringleted in assonance and woodnotes,
The poet’s dream stole over him like sunlight
And passed into the tenebrous thickets.

He learns this other writing. He is the scribe
Who drove a team of quills on his white field.
Round his cell door the blackbirds dart and dab.
Then self-denial, fasting, the pure cold.

By rules that hardened the farther they reached north
He bends to his desk and begins again.
Christ’s sickle has been in the undergrowth.
The script grows bare and Merovingian.


The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O.
He alludes to Shakespeare. He alludes to Graves.
Time has bulldozed the school and school window.
Balers drop bales like printouts where stooked sheaves

Made lambdas on the stubble once at harvest
And the delta face of each potato pit
Was patted straight and moulded against frost.
All gone, with the omega that kept

Watch above each door, the good-luck horseshoe.
Yet shape-note language, absolute on air
As Constantine’s sky-lettered IN HOC SIGNO
Can still command him; or the necromancer

Who would hang from the domed ceiling of his house
A figure of the world with colours in it
So that the figure of the universe
And ‘not just single things’ would meet his sight

When he walked abroad. As from his small window
The astronaut sees all that he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum -

Or like my own wide pre-reflective stare
All agog at the plasterer on his ladder
Skimming our gable and writing our name there
With his trowel point, letter by strange letter.

—From The Haw Lantern (1987); rep. in Opened Ground (1996), pp.292-94
[Rep. by Gerry Cordon, in That’s How the Light Gets In (3 Sept. 2013) 1984 is cited as the poems date of composition. Available online; accessed 24.04.2014]

The Flight Path”: ‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write / Something for us?’ - ‘Of I do write something, / Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.’ (The Spirit Level, 1996, q.p.) [The foregoing four quotations given in Eileen Battersby, ‘The poet as inner emigré’, review of Opened Ground, in The Irish Times, 10 Oct. 1998.)

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“Clearances” - [sonnet sequence] in The Haw Lantern (1987)
In memoriam M. K. H., 1911-1984.

She taught me what her uncle once taught her:
How easily the biggest coal block sploit
If you got the grain and hammer angled right.

The sound of that relaxed alluring blow,
its co-opted and obliterated echo,
Taught me to hit, taught me to loosen,

Taught me between the hammer and the block
To face the music. Teach me now to listen,
To strike it rich behind the linear black.




A cobble thrown a hundred years ago
Keeps coming at me, the first stone
Aimed at a great-grandmother’s turncoat brow.
The pony jerks and the riot’s on.
She’s crouched low in the trap
Running the gauntlet that first Sunday
Down the brae to Mass at a panicked gallop.
He whips on through the town to cries of “Lundy!”
Call her “The Convert”. “The Exogamous Bride”.
Anyhow, it is a genre piece
Inherited on my mother’s side
And mine to dispose with now she’s gone.
Instead of silver and Victorian lace,
The exonerating, exonerated stone.

Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big—
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug.
The kettle whistled. Sandwich and tea scone
Were present and correct. In case it run,
The butter must be kept out of the sun.
And don’t be dropping crumbs. Don't tilt your chair.
Don't reach. Don't point. Don't make noise when you stir.
It is Number 5, New Row, Land of the Dead,
Where grandfather is rising from his place
With spectacles pushed back on a clean bald head
To welcome a bewildered homing daughter
Before she even knocks. “What’s this? What’s this?”
And they sit down in the shining room together.



When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives —
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words “beyond her”. Bertold Brek.
She'd manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
With more challenge than pride, she'd tell me, “You
Know all them things.” So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I'd naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.



The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.

In the first flush of the Easter holidays
The ceremonies during Holy Week
Were highpoints of our Sons and Lovers phase.
The midnight fire. The paschal candlestick.
Elbow to elbow, glad to be kneeling next
To each other up there near the front
Of the packed church, we would follow the text
And rubrics for the blessing of the font.
As the hind longs for the streams, so my soul ....
Dippings. Towellings. The water breathed on.
The water mixed with chrism and with oil.
Cruet tinkle. Formal incensation
And the psalmist's outcry taken up with pride:
Day and night my tears have been my bread.



In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in all their life together.
“You’ll be in New Row on Monday night
And I’ll come up for you and you’ll be glad
When I walk in the door ... Isn’t that right?*;
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
—The Haw Lantern (1987), rep. in Opened Ground (1996), pp.321-33;  Nos. II & VIII quoted in Tracy K. Smith, in Work in Progress [Farrar, Straus & Giroux], “Celebrating Seamus Heaney” - online; accessed 18.03.2014. No. V quoted in Helen Vendler, “Second Thoughts” [review], in The New York Review of Books (28 April 1988) - available online. [See Opened Ground (1998), pp.306, 314; 321-33.] See full length version of “Clearances” in RICORSO Library > “Classics” > Authors > Heaney > Poems - as infra:

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A Selection of Poems by Seamus Heaney

A Kite for Michael and Christopher”: ‘[...] My friend says that the human soul / is about the weight of a snipe, / yet the soul at anchor there, / the strings that sags and ascends, / weights like a furrow assumed into heaven. / Before the kite plunges down into the wood / and this line goes useless / take it in your hands, boys, and feel / the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief. / You were born fit for it. / Stand in here in front of me / and take the strain.’ (From Station Island, 1984, rep. in Opened Ground, 1998, pp.231-32; here 231.) [See further remarks under T. R. Henn, infra.]

Station Island” - Sect. XII [words given to James Joyce]:

                     [...]  ‘The English language
belongs to us. You are raking at dead fires,

a waste of time for somebody your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,
infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage.

You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim

out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,

elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.’
The shower broke in a cloudburst, the tarmac
fumed and sizzled. As he moved off quickly

the downpour loosed its screens round his straight walk.

Station Island (1984); rep. in Opened Ground (1998), p.268.

See also ...

Voice of William Carleton: ‘I who learned to read in the reek of flax / and smelled hanged bodies rotting on their gibbets / and saw their looped slime gleaming from the sacks - / hard-mouthed Ribbonmen and Orange bigots / made me into the old fork-tongued turncoat / who mucked the byre of their politics.’ (here 115).

—Quoted in Patricia Craig, ‘History and its Retrieval in Contemporary Northern Irish Poetry: Paulin, Montague and Others’, in Andrews, ed., Contemporary Irish Poetry, Macmillan 1992, pp.107-23; p.115.

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The Stone Verdict

When he stands in the judgment place
With his stick in his hand and the broad hat
Still on his head, maimed by self-doubt
And an old disdain of sweet talk and excuses,
It will be no justice if the sentence is blabbed out.
He will expect more than words in the ultimate court
He relied on through a lifetime's speechlessness.

Let it be like the judgment of Hermes,
God of the stone heap, where the stones were verdicts
Cast solidly at his feet, piling up around him
Until he stood waist deep in the cairn
Of his apotheosis: maybe a gate-pillar
Or a tumbled wallstead where hogweed earths the silence
Somebody will break at last to say, “Here
His spirit lingers,” and will have said too much.

—From in The Haw Lanthern (1987); posted on Facebook by Peter Quinn [07.07.2108].

Note: The poem is the subject of commentary in Helen Vendler in Seamus Heaney (Harvard UP 1998; 2000), “Anthropologies” [Chap.], pp.54-77 - as attached.]

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The Cure of Troy (1990) - Some Extracts:
  ‘Philotectes. / Hercules. / Odysseus. / Heroes. Victims. Gods and human beings […] Every one of them / Convinced he’s in the right, all of them glad / To repeat themselves and their every last mistake, / no matter what. // People so deep in / Their own self-pity, self-pity buoys them up. / People so staunch and true, they’re fixated, / Shining with self-regard like polished stones.’ (Cure of Troy, London: Faber & Faber 1990, p.1.)
  ‘The chorus [is] more or less a borderline between / The you and the me and the it of it. / Between the gods’ and human beings’ sense of things. / And that’s the borderline that poetry / Operates on too, always in between / What you would like to happen and what will - Whether you like it or not. / Poetry allowed the gods to speak. It was the voice / Of reality and justice.’ (p.2.)
  ‘Whose side are the gods on? / What are human beings to make of them? / HOw am I to keep praising the gods / If they keep disappointing me, and never / Match the good on my side with their good?’ (p.25.)
  ‘Think what that man came through. / What did he do / To be cursed with his abcess, / Crippled and deserted, / Doomed in a wilderness?’ (p.38.)
  ‘Your wound is what you feed on, Philoctetes, / I say it again in friendship and say this: / Stop eating yourself up with hate and come with us.’ (p.61.)
  ‘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.’ (p.77; often quoted adopted as a motto of the International Ireland Funds.)
  ‘The innocent in gaols / Beat on their bars together. / A hunger striker’s father / Stands in the graveyard dumb. / The police widow in veils / Faints at the funeral home.’ (p.77.)
  ‘No poem or play or song / Can fully right a wrong / Inflicted and endured.’ (p.77.)
  ‘Like a fossil […] I’m nothing but cave / Stones and damp walls and old mush of dead / Leaves. The sound of the waves in draughty passages.’ (p.80.)

[The foregoing chiefly quoted in Loredana Salis, ‘“So Greek with Consequence”: Classical Tragedy in Contemporary Irish Drama’, PhD Diss., UUC, 2005.] (See longer extract from Chorus - supra.)

The Cure of Troy - Epilogue:

Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem at play or song
Can fully tight a wrong
Inflicted and endured ...Birg

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.
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.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

— Quoted on That’s How the Light Gets In [blog, 23.09.2013; accessed 24.04.2014]

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Markings” (from Seeing Things, 1991)

”We marked the pitch: four jackets for four goalposts,
That was all. The corners and the squares
Were there like longitude and latitude
Under the bumpy ground, to be
Agreed about or disagreed about
When the time came. And then we picked the teams
And crossed the line our called names drew between us.


Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field
As the light died and they kept on playing
Because by then they were playing in their heads
And the actual kicked ball came to them
Like a dream heaviness, and their own hard
Breathing in the dark and skids on grass
Sounded like effort in another world ...
It was quick and constant, a game that never need
Be played out. Some limit had been passed,
There was fleetness, furtherance, tiredness,
In time that was extra, unforeseen and free.


From Seeing Things (1999); rep. in Opened Ground (1998), pp.335-36; see full-text version - as attached.

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Seeing Things”: ‘[…] it was as if I looked from another boat / Sailing through air, far up, and could see / How riskily we fared into the morning, / And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads.’ [16; II:] ‘Claritas. The dry-eyed Latin Word / Is perfect for the carved stone of water / Where Jesus stands up to his unwet knees / … And yet in that utter visibility / The stone’s alive with what’s invisible: Waterweed, stirred sand-grains hurrying off, / The shadowy, unshadowed stream itself. / All afternoon, heat wavered on the steps, / And the air we stood up to our eyes in wavered / Like the zig-zag hieroglyph for life itself.’ (In Seeing Things, 1991, p.16-17.) [See longer extract - as attached.]

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“The Skylight” (“Glanmore Revisited”, vii)

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

—From in Seeing Things (1991); rep. in Opened Ground (1998), p.350.

Note that the cottage had been first lent and then sold to the Heaneys by Ann Saddlemyer, the Canadian Synge scholar - who had work done on it by John Stewart, then a young architect with Scott, Walker & Tallon.



The annals say that when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

—From “Squarings”, in Seeing Things (1991); rep. in Opened Ground (1996), p.364; quoted in Gerry Condon, That’s How the Light Gets In [blog, 3.09.2013; accessed 24.04.2014.]

I was four but I turned four hundred maybe
Encountering the ancient dampish feel
Of a clay floor. Maybe four thousand even.

Anyhow, there it was. Milk poured for cats
In a rank puddle-place, splash-darkened mould
Around the terra cotta water-crock.

Ground of being. Body’s deep obedience
To all its shifting tenses. A half-door
Opening directly into starlight.

Out of that earth house I inherited
A stack of singular, cold memory-weights
To load me, hand and foot, in the scale of things.

—From Seeing Things (1991), rep. in Collected Poems (1988-2013), p.51.


Sand-bed, they said. And gravel-bed. Before
I knew river shallows or river pleasures
I knew the ore of longing in those words.

The places I go back to have not failed
But will not last. Waist-deep in cow-parsley,
I re-enter the swim, riding or quelling

The very currents memory is composed of,
Everything accumulated ever
As I took squarings from the top of bridges

Of the banks of self at evening.
Lick of fear. Sweet transience. Flirt and splash.
Crumbled flow the sky-dipped willows trailed in.

 —From Seeing Things (1991), rep. in Collected Poems (1988-2013), p.51.

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A Sofa in the Forties
All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling / Behind each other, eldest down to youngest, / Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train // And between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door / Our speed and distance were inestimable. / First we shunted, then we whistled, then // Somebody collected the invisible / For tickets and very gravely punched it / As carriage after carriage under us // Moved faster, chooka-chook, the sofa legs / Went giddy and the unreachable ones / Far out on the kitchen floor began to wave.
Ghost train? Death-gondola? The carved, curved ends, / Black leatherette and ornate gauntness of it / Made it seem the sofa had achieved // Flotation. It castors on tip-toe, / Its braid and fluent backboard have it airs / Of superannuated pageantry: // When visitors endured it, straight-backed, / When it stood off, in its own remoteness, / When the insufficient toys appeared on it, [7] // On Christmas mornings, it held out as itself / Potentially heavenbound, earthbound for sure, / Among things that might add up or let you down.
We entered history and ignorance / Under the wireless shelf. Yipee-i-ay, / Sang “The Riders of the Range.” HERE IS THE NEWS, // Said the absolute speaker. Between him and us / A great gulf was fixed where pronunciation / Reigned tyrannically. The aerial wire // Swept from a treetop down in through a hole / Bored in the windowframe. When it moved in wind, / The sway of language and its furtherings // Swept and swayed in us like nets in water / Or the abstract, lovely curve of distant trains / As we entered history and ignorance.
We occupied our seats with all our might, / Fir for the uncomfortableness. / Constancy was its own reward already. // Out in front, on the big upholstered arm, / Somebody craned to the side, driver or / Fireman, wiping his dry brow with the air // Of one who had run the gauntlet. We were / The last thing on his mind, it seemed; we sensed / A tunnel coming up where we’d pour through // Like unlit carriages through fields at night, / Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead, / And be transported and make engine noise.’
—from The Spirit Level, 1996, pp.7-9; rep. in Opened Ground, 1998, pp.397-99.

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The Gravel Walks

River gravel. In the beginning, that.
High summer, and the angler’s motorbike
Deep in roadside flowers, like a fallen knight
Whose ghost we’d lately questioned: ‘Any luck?’

As the engines of the world prepared, green nuts
Dangled and clustered closer to the whirlpool.
The trees dipped down. The flints and sandstone-bits
Worked themselves smooth and smaller in a sparkle

Of shallow, hurrying barley-sugar water
Where minnows schooled that we scared when we played -
An eternity that ended once a tractor
Dropped its link-box in the gravel bed

And cement mixers began to come to life
And men in dungarees, like captive shades,
Mixed concrete, loaded, wheeled, turned, wheeled, as if
The Pharaoh’s brickyards burned inside their heads.

Hoard and praise the verity of gravel.
Gems for the undeluded. Milt of earth.
Its plain, champing sound against the shovel
Soundtests and sandblasts words like “honest worth”.

Beautiful in or out of the river,
The kingdom of gravel was inside you too -
Deep down, far back, clear water running over
Pebbles of caramel, hailstones, mackerel-blue.

But the actual washed stuff kept you slow and steady
As you went stooping with your barrow full
Into an absolution of the body,
The hriven life tired bones and marrow feel.

so walk on air against your better judgement
Establishing yourself somewhere in between
Those solid batches mixed with grey cement
And a tune called “The Gravel Walks” that conjures green.

—From The Spirit Level (1996); rep. in Opened Ground, 1998, pp.423-24.

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Dante Among the Giants” (A Translation of the Inferno, Canto XXXI)’: ‘Again I felt the last of Virgil’s tongue / My cheeks burned red; but, in a flash, he smeared / his gentle verbal ointment on the sting’ [&c.], with lines such as ‘Yin twa maghogani gazpaighp boke !’, and ‘My guide then turned to him: “Hey, head-the-ball”, stick to your trumpet; give it a good blast / when you feel your temper coming to the boil, // instead of that incessant blah, blah, blah!’ - [all ending:] ‘But gently - in the deepest pit of Hell, / where Lucifer and Judas are held fast - / He stooped and set us down, and then propelled // himself erect again, like some titanic mast.’] (Times Literary Supplement, 29 Sept. 2000, p.28.)

Heaney reads with others incl. Ciaran Carson and Michael Longley, at opening night of Poetry International 2000 Fest., Purcell Room, South Bank, London, Friday 6 Oct. [2000].

Horace and Thunder’ (after Horace, Odes, 1, 34): ‘Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter / Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head / Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now, / He galloped his thunder-cart and his horses // Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth / And the clogged underneath, the River Styx, / The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself. / Anything can happen, the tallest things // Be overturned, those in high places daunted, / Those overlooked esteemed. Stropped-beak Fortune / Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing off // Crests for sport, letting them drop wherever. // Ground gives. The heavens’ weight / Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle lid, / Capstones shift, nothing resettles right. / Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.’ (in The Irish Times, 17 Nov. 2001, Weekend, p.8.)

Note, the same printed with minor variations in Times Literary Supplement (18 Jan. 2002, p.40), viz: ‘Hook-beaked Fortune’ for ‘Stropped-beak Fortune’ and ‘fire-spores darken day’ for ‘fire-spores boil away’.

Testimony”, in The Irish Times (16 March 2002) [Weekend]: ‘We were killing pigs when the Yanks arrived. A Tuesday morning, sunlight and gutter-blood / Outside the slaughter house. From the main road / They would have heard the screaming. / Then hear it stop and had a view of us / In our gloves and aprons coming down the hill. / Two lines of them, guns on their shoulders, marching / Armoured cars and tanks and open jeeps. / Sunburnt hands and arms. Unnamed, in step, / Hosting for Normandy. // Not that we knew then / Where they were headed, standing there like youngsters / As they tossed us gum and tubes of coloured sweets.’ Note: The poem was also printed in “Three War Poems”, with others by Saadi Youssef and Michael Casey, in The Guardian ([Sat.] 15 Feb. 2003.)

Arion” [poem], in The Irish Times, 3 Feb. 2000): ‘We are all very hard at it in the boat ... Then turbulent / Sudden wind, a maelstrom; / The helmsman and the sailors perished. / Only I, still singing, washed / Ashore by the long sea-swell, sing on / A mystery to my poet self, / And sage and sound beneath the rock shelf / Have spread my wet clothes in the sun’ .


The stable door was open, the upper half,
When I looked back. I was five years old
And Dologhan stood watching me go off,
John Dologhan, the best milker ever

To come about the place. He sang “The Rose of
Mooncoin” with his head to the cow’s side.
He would spin his table knife and when the blade
Stopped with its point towards me, a bright path

Opened between us like a recognition
That made no sense, like my memory of him standing

Behind the half door, holding up the winkers.
Even then he was like an apparition,

A rambler from the Free State and a gambler,
All eyes as the pennies rose and slowed
On Sunday mornings under Butler’s Bridge
And downed themselves into that tight-bunched crowd

Of the pitch-and-toss school. Sunlight on far lines,
On the creosoted sleepers and hot stones.
And Dologhan, who’d worked in Montana once,
With the whole day off, in the cool shade of the arch.

—from Electric Light (2001), p.14; given at KCRW - online; accessed 22.05.2014.

Known World

In Belgrade I had found my west-in-east.

“Belmullet melancholy of huckster shops
And small shop windows. Unfresh bread, tinned peas.
Also Belmullet elders in the strees.
Black shawls, straight walk, the weather eye, the beads.”

Then I saw me in fezes, left the known world
On the short and sweetening mud-slide of a coffee.


At the still centre of the cardinal points
The flypaper hung from our kitchen ceiling.
Honey-strip and death-trap, syrup of Styx
Sweating swart beads, a barley-sugar twist
Of glut and loathing ...
In a nineteen-fifties

Of iron stoves and kin groups still in place, [23]
Congregations blackening the length
And breadth of summer roads.


Allegory, I say, but who’s to know
How to read sorrow rightly, or at all?


As the Boeing’s innards trembled and we climbed
Into the pure serene and protocols
Of Air Traffic Control, courtesy of Lufthansa,
I kept my seat belt fastened as instructed,
Smoked the minute the No Smoking went off
And took it as my due when wine was poured
By a slight de haut en bas of my headphoned head.
Nema problema. Ja. All systems go.

                                                      May 1998
Electric Light (2001), pp.23-27; given at KCRW - online; accessed 10.10.2015.

The Fragment

“Light came from the east,” he sang,
“Bright guarantee of God, and the waves went quiet.
I could see headlands and buffeted cliffs.
              Often, for marked courage, fate spares the man
It has not marked already.”
And when their objection was reported to him -
That he had gone to bits and was leaving them
Nothing to hold on to, his first and last lines
Neither here nor there -
                            “Since when,” he asked,
“Are the first line and the last line of any poem
Where the poem begins and ends?”

Electric Light (2001), q.pp.; given on Jordan Jeffers blogspot - online; accessed 14.10.2015.

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The Burial at Thebes (2004) [chorus]: “Love leads the good astray, / Plays havoc in heart and home; / You, love, here and now / In this tormented house / Are letting madness loose.” (Quoted in Neil Corcoran, review, in The Guardian, 1 May 2004.)

Beacons at Bealtaine” (Phoenix Park, May Day, 2004)
(A poem delivered at EU Enlargement Ceremony by Irish Poet Laureate Seamus Heaney (Phoenix Park, Dublin, 1 May 2004.)

‘Uisce: water. And fionn: the water’s clear. But dip and find this Gaelic water Greek: / A phoenix flames upon fionn uisce here. // Strangers were barbaroi to the Greek ear. / Now let the heirs of all who could not speak / The language, whose ba-babbling was unclear, // Come with their gift of tongues past each frontier / And find the answering voices that they seek / As fionn and uisce answer phoenix here. // The May Day hills were burning, far and near, / When our land’s first footers beached boats in the creek / In uisce, fionn, strange words that soon grew clear; // So on a day when newcomers appear / Let it be a homecoming and let us speak / The unstrange word, as it behoves us here, // Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare Like ancient beacons signalling, peak to peak, / From middle sea to north sea, shining clear / As phoenix flame upon fionn uisce here.’

The Irish Times (3 May 2004), World Sect.

Translations into Irish, French, Germany and other European languages including those of the new membership countries were made by Gabriel Rosenstock, Riccardo Duranti and Marco Sonzogni (Italian), Akagi Kobayashi (Japanese), Anamaría Crowe Serrano (Spanish) and the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association/Cumann Aistritheoirí agus Teangairí na hÉireann.

The following introduction is provided with the poem:

‘In the Celtic calendar that once regulated the seasons in many parts of Europe, May Day, known in Irish as Bealtaine, was the feast of bright fire, the first of summer, one of the four great quarter days of the year. The early Irish Leabhar Gabhála (The Book of Invasions), tells us that the first magical inhabitants of the country, the Tuatha Dé Danaan, arrived on the feast of Bealtaine, and a ninth century text indicates that on the same day the druids drove flocks out to pasture between two bonfires. So there is something auspicious about the fact that a new flocking together of the old European nations happens on this day of mythic arrival in Ireland; and it is even more auspicious that we celebrate it in a park named after the mythic bird that represents the possibility of ongoing renewal. But there are those who say that the name Phoenix Park is derived from the Irish words, fionn uisce, meaning “clear water” and that coincidence of language gave me the idea for this poem. It’s what the poet Horace might have called a carmen sæculare, a poem to salute and celebrate an historic turn in the sæculum, the age.’

—The poem is available at English Grammar 4U [online] and can also be seen on sundry other sites sharing its topical interest, e.g., Think Peace [online]; both accessed 30.05.2011.

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Testimony: The Ajax Incident” [adapted from Sophocles’ Ajax]: ‘“Lamps had gone out, the late sentries dozed, / When something just came over him. He rose / And rigged for action, lifted down / His two-edged slashing sword, a bedside weapon / He kept like a second bedmate, then slipped outside / Far more nimbly than you’d have expected / For a man his size, with that night-mirroring / Blade in hand, aloft. Anything / I said meant nothing to him, mere / Wife-babble, ignored the same as ever, / Even though this time there was no attack / Being sounded, no command. // Then he was back, / In through the tent door like a conquering drover / With his captives on a rope: bull calf, heifer, / Milk cows, rams and ewes, the very sheepdogs. / How long he’d rampaged through their pens and paddocks / Or why he was herding them I couldn’t tell / Until the butchering started. I can still / Hear the slosh of innards, piss and muck. / Some he beheaded with a single stroke / Down through the neck bone, some he wrestled flat, / Legs and belly up, and cut their throats, / For all the spurted dung and kicks and horn-toss. / Some that he tied and tortured like prisoners / Slit by slit, hamstring and lip and ear, / Just bled to death, hoofs beating at a chair. // At last there came a lull, then a tirade / Against those chiefs he thought he’d left for dead / On the floor behind him, once comrades, men of honour, / But now reviled; he stood by the tent door / Bellowing hate and havoc and their names. / Then, bloody-spoored and raving, in he comes, / Returning to his senses bit by bit, / And starts to butt the tent-pole, going quiet / As he climbs and slips and struggles through a mess / Of entrails splattered and opened carcasses. / And so for a long while he just lay there dumb, / Dragging his nails and fingers for a comb / Through his slathered hair, breathing like a beast / Slack-mouthed and winded. But came round at last, / Risen off all fours to overbear, / Turning on me to explain the massacre, / So I told him what I think he knew he’d done. // Then Ajax raised his voice in lamentation, / At bay now and in disproof of his rule / That warriors didn’t weep, they weren’t old women - / But soon his head-back, harrowing wail / Turned to the long deep moaning of a bull. // Slumped, slow motioned, he is in there still, / Ensconced on a pile of slaughtered meat and offal, / Lowing to himself. Something gathers head / And is going to happen. We must pay him heed. / Nothing is over, only overdue. / A friend should go to him. One, friends, of you.’ (Times Literary Supplement, 25 Nov. 2004; online.)

The Tollund Man in Springtime” (2005): ‘My heavy head. Bronze-buffed. Ear to the ground. / My eye at turf level. Its snailskin lid. / My cushioned cheek and brow. My phantom hand / And arm and leg and shoulder that felt pillowed / As fleshily as when the bog pith weighed / To mould me to itself and it to me / Between when I was buried and unburied. / Between what happened and was meant to be. / On show for years while all that lay in wait / Still waited. Disembodied. Far renowned. / Faith placed in me, me faithless as a stone / The harrow turned up when the crop was sown. / Out in the Danish night I’d hear soft wind And remember moony water in a rut. / ... / Cattle out in rain, their knowledgeable / Solid standing and readiness to wait, / These I learned from. I stood by in the wet, / My head as washy as a head of kale, / Shedding water like the flanks and tail / Of every dumb beast sunk above the cloot / In trampled mud, bringing their heavyweight / Silence to bear on nosed-at sludge and puddle. / Of another world, unlearnable, and so / To be lived by, whatever it was I knew / Came back to me. Newfound contrariness. / In check-out lines, at cash-points, in those queues / Of wired, far-faced smilers, I stood off, / Bulrush, head in the air, far from its long lough.’ (Times Literary Supplement, 29 April 2005, p.4.)

District and Circle” (2006) - title poem: ‘Tunes from a tin whistle underground / Curled up a corridor I’d be walking down / To where I knew I was always going to find / My watcher on the tiles, cap by his side, / His fingers perked, his two eyes eyeing me / In an unaccusing look I’d not avoid, / Or not just yet, since both were out to see / For ourselves. [....] And so by night and by day to be transported / Through galleried earth with them, the only  relict / Of all that I belonged to, hurtled forward, / Reflecting in a window mirror-backed / By blasted weeping rock-walls. / Flicker-lit.’

The Birch Grove

At the back of a garden, in earshot of river water,
In a corner walled off like the baths or bake-house
Of an unroofed abbey or broken-floored Roman villa,
They have planted their birch grove. Planted it recently only,
But already each morning it puts forth in the sun
Like their own long grown-up selves, the white of the bark
As suffused and cool as the white of the satin nightdress
She bends and straightens up in, pouring tea,
Sitting across from where he dandles a sandal
On his big time-keeping foot, as bare as an abbot’s.
Red brick and slate, plum tree and apple retain
Their credibility, a CD of Bach is making the rounds
Of the common or garden air. Above them a jet trail
Tapers and waves like a willow wand or a taper.
“If art teaches us anything,” he says, trumping life
With a quote, “it’s that the human condition is private.”

- from District and Circle (2006).

Note: The poem was chosen as “Saturday Poem” in The Guardian (1 April 2006); also quoted [in part] in Christopher Benfey, ‘What Seamus Heaney Taught Me’, in New York Review of Books (1 Sept. 2013) - online.

The Blackbird of Glanmore”: ‘On the grass when I arrive, / Filling the stillness with life, / But ready to scare off / At the very first wrong move. / In the ivy when I leave. // It’s you, blackbird, I love. // I park, pause, take heed. / Breathe. Just breathe and sit / And lines I once translated / Come back: “I want away / To the house of death, to my father // Under the low clay roof.” // And I think of one gone to him, / A little stillness dancer - / Haunter-son, lost brother - / Cavorting through the yard, / So glad to see me home, // My homesick first term over. // And think of a neighbour’s words / Long after the accident: / “Yon bird on the shed roof, / Up on the ridge for weeks - / I said nothing at the time // But I never liked yon bird.” // The automatic lock / Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic / Is shortlived, for a second / I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself, / A shadow on raked gravel // In front of my house of life. // Hedge-hop, I am absolute / For you, your ready talkback, / Your each stand-offish comeback, / Your picky, nervy goldbeak - / On the grass when I arrive, // In the ivy when I leave.’ (From District & Circle, 2006)]

Saw Music”: ‘[...] it reminds me of [...] a wet night / In Belfast, around Christmas, when the man / Who played the saw inside the paddled doorway / Of a downtown shop, [...] Started to draw his bow across the blade. / [...] Like the saw’s greased teeth his bow caressed and crossed / Back across unharmed. ‘The art of oil painting - / Daubs fixed on canvas - is a paltry thing / Compared with what cries out to be expressed,’ // The poet said, who lies this god-beamed day / Coffined in Krakow, as out of this world now / As the untranscendent music of the saw / He might have heard in Vilnius or Warsaw / And would not have renounced, however paltry.’ (District and Circle, 2006, p.50.)

[Note that the Czeslaw Milosz is the poet referred to - being the recipient of the dedication of the triptych “Out of This World”, of which this poem is the third component.]

A Kite for Aibhín” - after L’Aquilone by Giovanni Pascoli, (1855-1912)

Air from another life and time and place,
Pale blue heavenly air is supporting
A white wing beating high against the breeze,

And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon
All of us there trooped out
Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,

I take my stand again, halt opposite
Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,
Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,
Lifts itself, goes with the wind until
It rises to loud cheers from us below.

Rises, and my hand is like a spindle
Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite flier
Until string breaks and - separate, elate -

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.


Final poem in Human Chain (2010); quoted by Rowan Ricardo Phillips, in Work in Progress [Farrar, Straus & Giroux], “Celebrating Seamus Heaney” - online; accessed 18.03.2014.]

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Höfn” (in District and Circle, 2006): ‘The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt. / What will we do, they ask, when boulder-milt / Comes wallowing across the delta flats / And the miles-deep shag-ice makes its move? / I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above, / Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff, / And feared its coldness that still seemed enough / To iceblock the plane window dimmed with breath, / Deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth / And every warm, mouthwatering word of mouth.’ (p.53; also printed in The Irish Times, 31 March 2007, p.3 where the collection is announced as a recipient of The Irish Times Poetry Now Award Committee for best the new book of 2006.)

A Herbal” (After GuillevicsHerbier de Bretagne”)

Everywhere plants
Flourish among graves,

Sinking their roots

In all the dynasties
Of the dead.



Between heather and marigold,
Between spaghnum and buttercup,
Between dandelion and broom,
Between forget-me-not and honeysuckle,

As between clear blue and cloud,

Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak tree and slated roof,
I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.

Where can it be found again,
An elsewhere world, beyond

Maps and atlases

Where all is woven into

And of itself, like a nest
Of crosshatched grass blades?

  For full version, see attached.

Banks of a Canal”: ‘Say “canal” and there’s that final vowel / Towing silence with it, slowing time / To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam / Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still. / The stunted concrete mocks the classical. / Water says, “My place here is in dream, / In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream, / Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.” / Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland, / The sky not truly bright or overcast: / I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it, / The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest / Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight / Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.’

Note: The above poem, which Heaney completed ten days before his death, explores a painting of a canal made in c.1872 by Gustave Caillebotte and appears in an anthology issued by Gallery Press to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the National Gallery of Ireland in 2015. Other contributors to the collection include John Banville, Roddy Doyle, Dennis O’Driscoll (also posthum.), Patricia Scanlan, and Colm Tóibín. The anthology was edited by Janet McLean, NGI Curator of European Art 1850-1950. (See The Guardian, 3 Oct. 1014 - online.)

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