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.