Yet We Were Looking Away – On Missing the Moment!



Seamus Heaney's "Great Minds Lecture" delivered at the University of Dundee in July 2003

Seamus Heaney’s “Great Minds Lecture” delivered at the University of Dundee in July 2003













The Self-Unseeing

Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.

Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!

Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928) from Room to Rhyme by Seamus Heaney, University of Dundee, 2004

Happy Family Day in most of Canada but not B.C.! (We had ours last Monday!)

It’s been too long! A few months since my last blog post. I have lots of excuses which are simply the everyday events of a life being used as an excuse not to write instead of being an invitation to fix moments in time with words and make them last! Yes, there has been dying (my dear wife’s Dad) but today, as Derek Mahon, the Irish poet, says: No need to go into that. Yes, there has been grieving. But I don’t want to forget to celebrate the many moments of grace that still fill a day spent inside the house of grief. I want to remember not to look away!

I am grateful to Seamus Heaney who introduced me to Hardy’s poem in his “Greatest Minds Lecture” delivered at the July 2003 graduation ceremony at the University of Dundee and published in the book, Room to Rhyme. Hardy’s poem has been a comfort and a warning in recent days. And it made me think of this day designed to celebrate families. Not all family moments deserve celebrating. We know this all too well. But I was thinking of the moments worth celebrating that pass by without notice or without being fully absorbed. The memories like Hardy’s of this family moment in front of a fire. But how easy it is to realize: Yet we were looking away.

Heaney begins his lecture with lines from a Christmas mummer’s play that include the line: And give us room to rhyme. These lines  have stayed with him all his life and he comments on how they link the child in him to his older self. How they appeal to memory and open a path to further meaning. He also says: I want therefore to speak about poetry’s ability to renew and transfigure experience in another pattern, about the good of this transfiguration and the worth of it. Later on in his lecture he adds:

Basically, the experience of art – even an art as humble as the Christmas Rhymers’ – firms us up inside. It fortifies our subjectivity. The world comes at us minute by minute, day by day……so that as individuals we are always in danger of losing trust in our resourceful selves, of falling under the wheels of the media machine, going dull and dopey in domestic seclusion, losing detachment, forgetting that we have a stake in the ore of our selfhood and negotiating instead in the coin of the moment, the currency of the ephemeral.

In this situation, poetry and art and cultural memory kick in like an emergency power system to reinforce the self, besieged as it is by this constant clamour and distraction of circumstance. They help the individual to credit the validity of personal experience and intuition.

In fact, one of the reasons poetry gets written in the first place is to import to certain memories, a meaning that was missing at the time the events actually occurred. For a poet, an event that happened will often not reveal its significance until it is happened upon a second time, in memory, until its import has been captured by being written down and the whole thing has thereby been made important. And this is one of the reason’s why I love Thomas Hardy’s short poem, The Self-Unseeing. It’s both simple and strange. It tells of a moment in childhood which passed without special attention being paid to it at the time but, which when remembered, revealed itself as inestimably radiant, one of the milestones in the history of the self, even though the self could not see it at the time.

What an explanation of the critical power and importance of writing  poetry: For a poet, an event that happened will often not reveal its significance until it is happened upon a second time, in memory, until its import has been captured by being written down and the whole thing has thereby been made important. 

Heaney’s comments remind me of something the American poet Dorianne Laux said in a 2008 interview on

Poems keep us conscious of the importance of our individual lives……When we write a poem of personal witness, a poem about an ordinary day, an ordinary life, seen through the lens of what Whitman called “the amplitude of time,” we’re struggling to find the importance of the individual who is stranded in the swirling universe, a figure standing up against the backdrop of eternity. I think of the fisherman’s prayer: Dear Lord, be good to me / the sea is so wide / and my boat is so small. 

The recovery of memory. The recovery of moments fished out of the river of everyday life, even years later. How important that is. But often, so often, the memories do slip by and we forget them. And sometimes not even the  writing of a poem will recover them. The American poet Jack Gilbert captures this so beautifully in this poem:

Highlights and Interstices

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as children,
vacations and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

Jack Gilbert (1925 – 2013 ) from Transgressions, Bloodaxe Books, 2006

Our lives happen between the memorable. This line gives me a chill. So many of my everyday moments. Gone. I only appreciate this fully when I read a journal entry from years ago and realize I could be reading the story of someone else’s life. Today I remember how the sunset afterglow lasted in the Cowichan river estuary for half an hour. And how it illuminated my wife’s face and behind her the bulrushes and inside them, how I heard the insistent call of the red wings. And how within that light and those sounds I kissed my wife’s light-stained lips.

Gilbert addresses this same theme of forgetting and not noticing in his poem Getting It All. He says: the common/ is almost beyond us. Thank god for the gift of poets who remind us that that is where most of the gold in our lives can be found.

Getting It All

The air this morning is pleasant and praises nothing.
It lies easily on each thing. The light has no agency.
in this kind of world, we are on our own: the plain
black shoes of a man sitting in the doorway,
pleats of the tall woman’s blue skirt as she hurries
to an office farther on. We notice maybe
the gold-leaf edges of a book carried by the student
glinting intermittently as she crosses into the bright
sunlight on our side of the street. But usually
we depend on meditation and having things augmented.
We see the trees in their early-spring greenness,
but not again until just before winter. The common
is mostly beyond us. Love after the fervour, the wife
after three thousand nights. It is easy to realize
the horse suddenly running through an empty alley.
But marriage is clear. Like the faint sound of a cello
very late at night somewhere below in the stillness
of an old building on a street named Gernesgade.

Jack Gilbert  from the Great Fires – Poems 1982 – 1992, Alfred A. Knoff, 1994

Downstairs I hear my son chopping broccoli for dinner and the low murmur of his voice and my wife’s. When I join them I want to be able to say: I was not looking away.


  1. Posted February 16, 2015 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    What a stunning post, Richard. So moving and beautiful. Thank you, thank you.

  2. Richard
    Posted February 16, 2015 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Dear Donnie: So appreciate your words! You remind me I am not writing to a void! That these blogs might touch someone’s experience is why I write them. Thank you so much.

  3. Liz McNally
    Posted February 16, 2015 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    “Our lives happen between the memorable” so much in this post to digest Richard.
    The mention of the Mummers and a moment in which ai did not look away. My father at 80 when asked about the Mummers song becoming momentarily a school boy. He sang each word smiling and jigging, eyes alight and spirit shining. I did not look away, then or now.
    Thank you for this marvellous post!

  4. Richard
    Posted February 16, 2015 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    You are unswervingly in your commitment to comment on each blog I post. But this comment with your Dad’s comments from his “mummer” experiences particularly moves me. His experience mirrors and confirms Heaney’s premise in his lecture. Ah, and that you did not look away! Bless you!

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