Noli Timere – Be Not Afraid – Heaney’s Work: A Poet’s Work

The Monastic site of Clonmacnoise

The Monastic site of Clonmacnoise

from Lightenings


The annals say: 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
Out of the marvelous as he had known it.

Seamus Heaney from Seeing Things, Faber and Faber, 1991

Obviously I’m not quite finished with Seamus Heaney! This is my third post inspired by his life and work since his death on August 30th, just more than a week ago. The outpouring of tributes to him since his death has been extraordinary. Two of those stand out for me. One, not unexpected, was from the celebrated American poet Jane Hirschfield (1955 – ) who knew Heaney well and whose tribute included a picture taken by Heaney’s wife of Hirschfield snuggled beside him in April in Rome. The other, unexpected but so appreciated, was from the host of CBC’s Sunday Morning program, Michael Enright.

Here some words by Hirschfield: You could count on such honesty from Seamus, and on the reliable eloquence, the twin brogues of accent and brilliance, though you could never predict the particulars they might be couched in—a rook, a root, a memory, some anthracite-compact quotation. In his presence and in his words, you felt the wholeness of his embrace of being, and also the burnish of original seeing—as if the world were a bas-relief being viewed from some different, sharpened angle of sun. And you felt, quite simply, more alive for his aliveness, in life and on the page.

What a great way to measure the power of a poet – for a reader to feel more alive for his or her [the poet’s] aliveness, in life and on the page.

Here is a wonderful example of the aliveness he brings to the page in the description of the day-to-day things we can become so habituated to and ignore. I especially love the line: the china cups were very white and big. The least likely poetic line but I think he pulls it off! With a very! And with the “issness” he creates. I am in the kitchen with him, full of its everyday marvels.

from Clearances II

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 teas 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.

from Open Ground, Faber and Faber, 1998

Michael Enright’s tribute surprised me not just because of its celebration of Heaney but why. He quotes Heaney’s now famous death-bed text to his wife Marie – Noli Timere – Don’t be Afraid – and says:

Poets know about human pain and human fear.

It is part of their mandate to write about our fears, not necessarily to assuage them, but only to describe them accurately so that we know what we are dealing with.

Later in his tribute he adds:

Our poets act as the counter to our fears. Our poets don’t change the world, but instead change the way we look at it. They provide a glimmer of something better.

In The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney wrote:

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.

Heaney grew up in the hard-scrabble country of rural Northern   Ireland. He lived through the “Troubles,” the horrific sectarian violence of the ’70s and ’80s. If anyone had reason to live a fearful life, surely it was him.

But his art and his insight are a constant denial of the corrosive power of fear.

Here, I think, is a wonderful example of this in Heaney’ sonnet, Fosterling:

‘That heavy greeneess fostered by water’

At school I loved one picture’s heavy greeness –
Horizons rigged wth windmill’s arms and sails.
The millhouses’ still outlines. There 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 weas nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Liker the tree-clock of tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten,
time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.

This captures Heaney’s trademark yes and no. What a turn in the sonnet. My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind. Heaviness of being. A big no. Then, the yes of crediting marvels. And not the miraculous. But the tree-clock of tin cans/ The tinkers made. The day to day marvels when we notice the beauty that exists alongside with life’s ever-present darker realities. This is where poets accomplish what Enright talks about. And talk about hope. The last two lines: So long for air to brighten,/ time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.

Heaney opened up about this change in his fifties in an interview he gave at Harvard in 2008:

Back to your Nobel lecture. You recited a line from your poem, where the narrator says, “Walk on air against your better judgment.” You offered this line as an instruction to yourself and all who listened. What does that mean?

SH: A person from Northern   Ireland is naturally cautious. You grew up vigilant because it’s a divided society. My poetry on the whole was earth-hugging, but then I began to look up rather than keep down. I think it had to do with a sense that the marvelous was as permissible as the matter-of-fact in poetry. That line is from a poem called “The Gravel Walks,” which is about heavy work—wheeling barrows of gravel—but also the paradoxical sense of lightness when you’re lifting heavy things. I like the in-betweenness of up and down, of being on the earth and of the heavens. I think that’s where poetry should dwell, between the dream world and the given world, because you don’t just want photography, and you don’t want fantasy either.

And this takes us back to the marvelous (in both senses of the word) of the poem that introduces this blog post. I visited the holy site of Clonmacnoise (see picture above), site of a former monastery, now in ruins but no less affecting, more than ten years ago. It is situated beside a river surrounded by such beauty.

Heaney in his poem reminds us that perspective is everything. The abbot in the poem is afraid the out-of-the-world man will drown inside their unbearable world but quite the opposite happens. The man climbs back out of the marvelous as he had known it.

What I think is marvellous about this is that Heaney is reminding us two forms of the marvellous: seeing this other-world apparation of  a floating ship, the marvellous contained in so many myths and cultural stories, and the quotidian marvellous we overlook such as the earthly beauty of Clonmacnoise or a tinker’s tree clock of tin cans. And when Heaney conjurs out of thin air it seems, the marvellous, even his china cups very white and big, I can become less afraid and be more present in the now. I am so grateful to Enright for pointing this out as a poet’s work!

Here is an example of this work through a poem by the American poet Stanley Kunitz (1905 – 2006), twice the poet laureate  of the United States and a man who lived with his full capabilities until he was past one hundred years old. That’s enough on its own to dispel fear! But his poem below is one of those I cherish as a poem that encourages me to hope. There are many gritty and not so  marvellous images in this poem but at the end it sounds a triumphant note: I am not done with my changes. The work of a poet. Giving us both no (How can I be reconciled to my feast of losses)and the yes but always saying the yes loud and clear, maybe not in every poem but in enough of them!

 The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

from the Collected Poems, W.W. Norton & Company., 2000

In a blog posting focussed on Heaney’s last words it seem only fair to give Seamus Heaney the last words here, as well. Here is an excerpt from a series of inrterview Heaney did with Dennis O’Driscoll in the book Stepping Stones in 2008.

Could it be said that you don’t fear death?

 Certainly not the way I’d have feared it sixty years ago, fearful of dying in the state of mortal sin and sifferring the consequences for all eternity. It’s more grief than fear, grief at having to leave ‘what thou lovest well’ and whom thou lovest well.

Grief more than fear. Yes.




One Comment

  1. Joanna Qureshi
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Hi Richard, thank you for your postings.
    Yes, trust Michael Enright to hone in on the essence of things. Then Scott Symon on his postings when his mother was dying that fitted so well.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *