Seamus Heaney

The nourishing sun


I arrived in Spain just as the news was breaking back home of Seamus Heaney’s death. Earlier in the week, in preparation for my course, I had been reading ‘Summer 1969’ from ‘Singing School’, Heaney’s account of vacationing in Madrid at the very moment when civilian protesters were being gunned down by the constabulary on the Falls Road. Heaney’s inability to forget what is going on in his home while he is ‘suffering / Only the bullying sun’ leads him to a greater dilemma – what can he, as a poet, say to make a difference.

It’s the old refrain of Auden’s: ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, written on hearing the news of the death of Yeats. And the same cycle of suffering and inability, the effort (and possibly failure) to make a difference is present in his poem, which equally could be a statement on Heaney’s work (now complete): 

                   Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Followers of Invective will know I have quoted those lines before. They never date – sadly, as I abandoned the news section of my paper on the plane, with its headlines speculating the possible American invasion of Syria.

Despite the Syrian crisis and the sad news of Heaney’s passing, I was glad to be back at the Almàssera Vella, with Christopher and Marisa North, who for part of the year generously open their home as a retreat for writers – a stunning place to gather and spend a pleasurable week in the sun (very hot, certainly, but more nourishing than bullying) talking about poetry and art. We were fortunate in our group to have two sculptors and a former artists’ model, so the discussion took on many aspects and angles. We started with Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, written around the same time as Auden’s tribute to Yeats, with the world on the brink of yet another world war; it’s tempting to see the two poets in dialogue, as Stevens presents his imperative to the writer or artist:

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.

How should you walk in that space and know
Nothing of the madness of space,

Nothing of its jocular procreations?
Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand

Between you and the shapes you take
When the crust of shape has been destroyed.

You as you are? You are yourself.
The blue guitar surprises you.

Stevens’s blue guitar is an instrument of invention, a metaphor for how we construct metaphor. Despite the destroyed shapes and rotted names we continue to try and make sense of the world, even if it feels sometimes as if no one is listening or looking. Stevens, of course, is the presiding spirit of this blog, and it’s his poetry I have often turned to as a model of how to construct my own. Like Heaney, Stevens is really talking about the world and the reality of the world, and how reality is sometimes bleak, but like Heaney, Stevens will guide rather than preach. His blue guitar, by way of Picasso and Braque, stands for the imagination, a reflection of us that isn’t us, but something that sings our pleasures and pain. We can’t change reality, instead we ‘patch’ the world as best we can; poet as invisible mender.


So round the table in the blue house, we sat talking about Stevens’ blue guitar, and Jorie Graham, Charles Simic, Frank O’Hara, the latter becoming another kind of presiding spirit for us. We decided to write a ‘lunch poem’ every day, although we had to trade O’Hara’s frenetic Manhattan for sleepy Relleu (the village going into siesta mode just as we were gearing up for our afternoon’s writing).

It was O’Hara who declared it ‘a fine day for seeing’, and when we piled into a couple of cars on the Tuesday, the sun still shining, we were more than ready to look at some art. We took a detour on the way to Alicante to visit a 2000-year-old olive tree, growing a few hundred yards from the motorway, down a dirt track. It was an amazing sight, its great, gnarled branches twisting up and into a canopy of small silvery leaves.  Later, in the gallery when we considered issues of texture and complexity, looking at sculptures by Sempere and Chillida, we recalled the smooth wood of the olive, rubbed white in places, like bone – reality as metaphor, a symbol of stubborn survival.


The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Alicante is a revelation. Three floors of modern and contemporary art, mainly by Spanish artists, many who were new to us. The building itself is a sculpture – all white marble and stone, a clean space for seeing, a true meeting of architectural vision and user-friendly space, with balconies on the upper floors that open to vistas of the galleries below and to the hills and castle outside.


It is a symbol of pre-recession ambition and civic pride, all the more surprising in a town where most visitors head straight for the promenade and the beach; as a result, we had the place pretty much to ourselves (the museum attendants actually outnumbering us). It is incredible that more people are not taking advantage of this remarkable gallery (which offers free entry). The fact that there is no catalogue of the collection, not even a postcard or two, perhaps reflects its underuse. So we had to record our experience in our poems (and a few stolen snapshots).


The next day we piled back into cars and drove to the nearby village of Sella, and into the hills, the craggy puig molten copper in the late afternoon sun. We climbed higher and higher into the Tafarmach ridge, finally reaching the home and studio of Terry Lee and his wife Pam (who paints under the name Olivia Firth). We talked with them about their work, their notion of landscape; how we carry the landscapes of our past and of our imaginations with us (Terry often bringing together his adopted Spanish hillside and his native Derbyshire in the same painting). And I thought of Heaney again, how in his poem he can’t help think of the reek of the flax-dam as he passes through the fish market of Madrid, how he finds Goya’s cudgels in the Prado, and thinks of them as ‘two berserks’ who ‘club each other to death / For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.’ The visit to Terry and Pam, to the remote and extraordinary landscape in which they live and work, was an inspiration to us to think about how we might make space for our work, even in the noisy corner of a busy city.


And all too soon it was time to return to our respective cities and cloudier skies, away from the dreaming space of the Almàssera. But many poems are still to be written, as we carry the landscape in our minds, one more folded sunset.

Carving mountains

We arrived in the village of Aubeterre on a Monday afternoon, the place pretty much empty, even of tourists. Aubeterre is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, which is a not a value judgment so much as a brand, with strict regulations the local Town Council must adhere to. To be considered for this esteemed title, the population of a village must not exceed 2000 inhabitants, and it must have at least two protected areas (picturesque or legendary sites, or sites of scientific, artistic or historic interest). Apart from its cobbled streets, its restored public lavoir, its pristine white houses and hanging baskets of flowers, it boasts one of the most remarkable churches I have ever seen. The monolithic Église Saint Jean was carved out the limestone hills that surround the village. It dates to the twelfth century, on the site of an earlier burial chamber. You enter the church along a wooden gangplank which brings you into the nave, a cave-like chamber 20 meters high, and then ascend along a spiral staircase to a horseshoe-shaped walkway along its upper ridge (for someone who is prone to vertigo, like me, the walk along the top is spectacular but terrifying). The floor of the nave is honeycombed with tombs, like an elaborate maze. Pilgrims would stop here (and still do) en route to Santiago de Compostela – walls throughout the village are studded with scallop shells, the symbol of the pilgrimage. It is an austere and imposing place, in odd contrast to the bright and postcard-perfect village.

It was my first visit to the Dordogne, and although I was assured that the region is heaving in peak season, it seemed sleepy, cut off. An ideal place to spend a week writing – as readers of Invective will know, I’ve made a recent decision to revisit the novel I started last summer. Although writing prose is a slow business for me, my new setting perhaps enabled a sort of release. I found myself typing quickly to keep up with my pace of thought. I sat on the terrace, under a vine humming with wasps and hornets, overlooking the field beyond the house, where a kestrel hovered, wings fluttering. The air was still – warm, but with that slight edge that signals shorter days, long cool evenings. Everything felt suspended, including my usual life back in London. Place has always had a profound effect on my writing, and so it might have been expected that the landscape would enter my narrative. But I found that I was reaching back, writing about an entirely different place – the manicured lawns and strip malls of my childhood.

I have a difficult relationship with the place where I grew up, which is perhaps reflected in the novel I’m writing. I have chosen to live in another country, thousands of miles away. I feel at home in my adopted city in a way I could never now feel at home in the place I left. How was I able to conjure that place so vividly while situated in a place so vastly and wholly different? Perhaps that difference, that alien quality, was what freed me; a place that has no associations can act as neutral ground. It takes me a long time to assimilate a new landscape; I have only recently starting writing poems set in Suffolk although I’ve been spending extended time there for the past seven years. So perhaps my poem set in the Dordogne will arrive in about seven years …

I was pleased not only that I could reconstruct that landscape from memory, but that it felt, for once, relatively easy. There are lots of analogies for the process of writing, often borrowing metaphors from hard labour; I like Seamus Heaney’s comparison of writing to digging, the ‘squat pen’ like a spade, the earth yielding words (and of course Heaney found all those early poems through archaeological excavations, resurrecting bog men and their ancient tongue). And that makes me go back to that monolithic church, the sheer impossibility of the feat, overcome perhaps through the devotion to complete it. I am lazy, I don’t have that sort of faith, and I punish myself for my various shortcomings constantly. I have no stamina, no staying power; that’s what I tell myself each time I pick up and then put down something I have not succeeded in finishing. But I have come back feeling quite positive; in my small way I’ve set myself a task, a little space that I must not so much ‘carve’ out as ‘fill’.

Fine lines


On the lower-ground floor of the Redfern Gallery on Cork Street is a small display of twentieth-century woodblock prints by seminal British artists such as Gill and Ravilious. Monochrome figures and landscapes against the stark white walls. But my eye is drawn to the back wall, where two contemporary prints hang side by side: against a vibrant black ground (the black is almost shining), delicate white ladders appear as if they’ve been conjured from nowhere. But these are not ladders you might climb; they are unstable, unreliable, crooked.

I haven’t seen these prints “in the flesh” since the day Linda Karshan showed them to me in her studio. These two are from a set, five of which were reprinted in my last collection, Fetch, as a way of splitting the book into discreet sections. The title poem, a film-noir-style narrative about a woman who creates a “fetch” or doppelganger to seduce a former lover, was divided into five installments, interspersed throughout the book, each “chapter” introduced by one of Linda’s striking woodblocks. In the two which are hanging here, there are two ladders in each, twinned, but not identical, but as the series progresses, the ladders multiply, become dense, more difficult to negotiate or separate. As my unnamed narrator sends her fetch out to do her bidding, the coupling becomes a triangle. It felt right to accompany my strange poem of betrayal and disillusionment with these spiky, odd, imperfect images.

Thinking about the process of woodblock printing, the artist chisels into the block along the grain to create what will appear as white on the page; what remains uncut will take the ink, appear as black. Of course, when the block is inked and transferred onto paper, the image will appear in reverse, a mirror image; this also felt appropriate when thinking of the fetch, the familiar, the doppelganger, perhaps the “reverse” of the speaker.

Linda is about to embark on a new set of woodblocks, and I will be writing a new poem to accompany them. A mirroring of her process, perhaps? I think of Heaney’s famous analogy of “digging” for the crafting of the poem; what we poets do is a kind of cutting away until the line is shaped.



A box of dreams

We are discussing the sonnet in my Tuesday night class, the merits of Petrarchan versus Shakespearean, rhymed versus unrhymed, and where the all-important turn should occur. I go back to Don Paterson’s introduction to his 101 Sonnets: from Shakespeare to Heaney, where he describes the sonnet as ‘a box for [poets’] dreams.’

And that phrase always makes me think of Joseph Cornell, whose boxed collages Bonnie Costello describes as ‘physical poetry’ which ‘invite the beholder to dwell in the work as he would in a poem.’ Cornell was an admirer of poets such as Apollonaire, Mallarmé, Dickinson and Rilke; and in turn, poets such as Marianne Moore and John Ashbery admired him. What Cornell did was to collect random objects, which were truly from the rag and bone shop, and catalogue them; by assembling them he made sense of them – a scrapheap cabinet of curiosities. Ashbery said of his collages that ‘he establishes a delicately adjusted dialogue between the narrative and the visual qualities of the work in that neither is allowed to dominate.’ He goes on to say, ‘Cornell’s work exists beyond questions of “literature” and “art” in a crystal world of its own making: archetypal and inexorable.’ This is poem as diorama.

So back to the sonnet, which Don Paterson says ‘represents one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take.’ It is a gathering of ideas into a small, perfectly-formed space. Or maybe the sonnet is more a window than a box, a window onto understanding (because the best sonnets set up a conflict or argument, and seek to find a resolution), just like Cornell’s collages are a window onto the unconscious, onto memory. I hate when artworks are described as “poetic”, and Cornell’s work often is, but perhaps it’s better to say that the logic of his work operates in the same way as a good poem (and the poetic form his boxes most resemble is the sonnet) in that it brings together disparate images, which, collectively, take on a new meaning.

Taking the strain

At his reading in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall last night, Seamus Heaney said that it is a poet’s task to ‘take the strain’: to locate the musical phrases of the poem but also to accept (and record) the traumas and stresses of life. It reminded me of another line of his: 'the music of what happens’. The title of his new book, 'Human Chain’ summarises another duality: we are human, we cannot escape our destinies or the passage of time, we are bound to each other (for better or worse), there will be wars and deaths which are inevitable (all part of the 'chain’ of events).

This is the poem he read as an encore (the audience wouldn’t let him leave), the final poem in his 1995 collection 'The Spirit Level’. It is one of my favourite Heaney poems, which in the end is about the poet’s vain efforts to 'capture’ the scene, which will always 'catch the heart offguard’.

And yes, I know, there are swans in this poem …


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.