Sunday, January 27, 2013

Stepping Stones

I've been reading the late Dennis O'Driscoll's Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney.  Among the interesting things I learnt was that Heaney's poem 'The Mud Vision', in which a strange religious apparition briefly visits modern secular Ireland, was partly inspired by Richard Long.  As Heaney explains in another interview, 'the actual mud-vision idea came from seeing a work by the English artist Richard Long, a big flower-face on a wall, made up entirely of muddy handprints. It began as a set of six or eight petals of mud and then moved out and out concentrically until it became this huge sullied rose window.'  Another strange image - a tree-clock made of tin cans - appears in the poem 'Fosterling', although this was not inspired by a piece of land art.  In Stepping Stones, Heaney recalls that it came from an old story about a Faustian pact: a band of tinkers built a fantastic clock in a tree and set it to the wrong time to fool the devil when he returned for the local people's souls.  Such marvels took Heaney many years to work into his poetry.  Growing up he inhabited a 'lowlands of the mind', a silted place where poetry was 'sluggish in the doldrums of what happens'. It took a long time 'for air to brighten, / Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.' 


I've embedded above a brief YouTube clip showing Dennis O'Driscoll interviewing Seamus Heaney and below I've set down a few observations on five landscape-related Heaney poems, with comments derived from Stepping Stones:

  • 'The Peninsula'   Heaney mentions in Stepping Stones that this poem (in his second collection, Door into the Dark) was written after a drive to the Ards peninsula in County Down. In it he writes about the way landscape can restore the ability to really see the world when it seems there is 'nothing more to say.'  Heaney imagines driving all day around the peninsula, a 'land without marks', until dusk arrives, when 'horizons drink down sea and hill.'  Then, heading home, details begin to emerge in memory - 'a glazed foreshore and silhouetted log' for example.  Such an experience makes it possible to 'uncode all landscapes / by this: things founded clean on their own shapes, / water and ground in their extremity.'
  • 'Bogland'  "I was putting my right leg into the trousers when I got the first line," says Heaney in Stepping Stones.  We have this pair of trousers to thank for some of Heaney's most famous poems.  "From the moment I wrote it, I felt promise in 'Bogland'  Without having any clear notion of where it would lead or even whether I would go back to the subject, I realised that new co-ordinates had been established."  This last poem in Door into the Dark would open the door to others in which the bog and its Iron Age victims serve partly as metaphor for events in Northern Ireland: 'Tollund Man' in Wintering Out and then the poems of North: 'Kinship', 'Punishment', 'Strange Fruit'... The drowned bodies are inseparable from their landscape: the Bog Queen preserved on the gravel bottom, 'between heathery levels / and glass-toothed stone'; the Grauballe Man, who 'lies / on a pillow of turf / and seems to weep / the black river of himself'.
  • 'Gifts of Rain'   In Stepping Stones Heaney is asked about a new interest in the semantic and phonetic in his fourth collection, Wintering Out, where poems take the sound of words as their subject.  I've described one of these, 'Anahorish', before, but there is also 'Toome' and 'Broagh', in which the rain beating on 'windy boortrees / and rhubarb-blades' ends suddenly like the word itself, with that gh that strangers find 'difficult to manage.' 'Gifts of Rain' describes a flooded landscape and the swollen river Moyola 'harping on / its gravel beds.'  This too is a phonetic place poem: 'The tawny guttural water / spells itself: Moyola / is its own score and consort, / bedding the locale in the utterance...'  
  • 'Höfn'   Heaney is periodically drawn into politics by O'Driscoll's questions and this poem, with its aerial view of a melting glacier in Iceland, is the pretext for a question on the environment (Heaney says he inclines more to lament than protest).  'Höfn' focuses on Heaney's primal fear of the glacier as it looked that day, an 'undead grey-gristed earth-pelt', so cold that it would 'deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth'.  Heaney is of course 'a man of the soil' and tells O'Driscoll that he has rarely felt as exposed as he did that day over the "stony grey scar of ice."
  • 'Postscript'   This is the last poem in The Spirit Level and is similar to 'The Peninsula', but much more specific: the drive is 'out west / into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, / in September or October, when the wind / and the light are working off each other.'  The poet observes swans on the surface of a lake but is content to drive on rather than park and try to 'capture' the moment.  The 'known and strange things' will, he realises, pass by and through him like the wind, catching 'the heart off guard' and blowing it open. Asked about this poem in Stepping Stones, Heaney says that it came to him quickly, as he recollected a windy day on Galway Bay: "we drove on into this glorious exultation of air and sea and swans."  You can hear him read the poem in the clip below.

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