Unable to post on WordPress for days, usual story. I may have to come back and insert links later.
The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney dead at 74 and I feel cheated of poems he might still have written. Since I first read his poetry as a schoolgirl, I have come back again and again to certain poems and listened intently to his Nobel Prize speech in 1995, Crediting Poetry, in which he talked of the truth found in poems:
To begin with, I wanted that truth to life to possess a concrete reliability, and rejoiced most when the poem seemed most direct, an upfront representation of the world it stood for or stood up for or stood its ground against. Even as a schoolboy, I loved John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” for being an ark of the covenant between language and sensation; as an adolescent, I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins for the intensity of his exclamations which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn’t fully know I knew until I read him; I loved Robert Frost for his farmer’s accuracy and his wily down-to-earthness; and Chaucer too for much the same reasons. Later on I would find a different kind of accuracy, a moral down-to-earthness to which I responded deeply and always will, in the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, a poetry where a New Testament sensibility suffers and absorbs the shock of the new century’s barbarism. Then later again, in the pure consequence of Elizabeth Bishop’s style, in the sheer obduracy of Robert Lowell’s and in the barefaced confrontation of Patrick Kavanagh’s, I encountered further reasons for believing in poetry’s ability—and responsibility—to say what happens, to “pity the planet,” to be “not concerned with Poetry.”
And all weekend I lay in bed with bronchitis, coughing into my pillow and watching red-winged starlings feeding on ripe fruit in the loquat tree outside my bedroom window. The housemate’s results show no cancer in her lung, no TB, but a problematic carbon build-up ( she doesn’t smoke so this is baffling) and a persisting unknown infection. More tests this week. Moving into challenging times, thinking again about how we grow old, how we adjust to change, how we are caught up in that chilly swift river and carried through life and beyond.
A cold beginning to spring and on Friday I had to go out to the gate in icy rain to collect a large sack of venison from a local farmer just back from hunting in the northern Richtersveld. This isn’t leisure hunting for amateurs or potshots at farmed deer: in an eco-conservation project, eland, kudu and springbok herds need to be culled in areas where natural predators can’t keep numbers down so expert marksmen on foot track the herds through the veld and mountains. It is important that the wild animals not suffer and they know what they are doing. While the farmer in his battered felt hat and rainjacket told me his grandmother’s recipes, I gingerly held the great sack of venison away from me and shivered, coughing and spluttering. It is a good addition to the pantry but I went back into the kitchen to disinter the deep freeze wishing I could live on courgette risotto or grilled broccoli.
My favourite Heaney poem
For 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.
Heaney wasn’t a poet I talked about that much by contrast with other poets, Elizabeth Bishop or Emily Dickinson, but he was part of the climate of my thinking and noticing, the act of remembering. For some of us, learning from nature, like learning from relationships, is akin to learning from poetry. And Seamus Heaney had a great naturalist’s feel for the landscape into which he was born, plain and muddy spaces brimming with the numinous.
At Heaney’s funeral, his son Michael spoke briefly to thank those who cared for his father and those who have offered support and praise since his death.
He revealed that his father had sent a text message to his mother, Marie, last Friday.
“His last few words in a text message minutes before he passed away, in his favourite Latin were “nolle timere” (‘don’t be afraid’),” he said.
Don’t be afraid. What else need be said?