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Posts Tagged ‘Irish poetry’

RED TWIG Winter 2014Twelve years ago, my wife and I planted a row of Red Twig Dogwoods on the western border of our back yard. They are now more than twelve feet tall. As I look out on this cold winter morning, I notice again how the dogwoods’ deep-red branches contrast with the prevailing whites, grays, and browns. Against a dormant and seemingly lifeless landscape, they remind us of the life force.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called that force “the clearest freshness deep down things.” Dylan Thomas called it “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” More simply, the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura, in his book Living by Vow,* calls it the “natural universal life force,” which appears most vividly in nature but is common to the natural and human worlds alike. “The force that drives the water through the rock,” Thomas went on to say, “drives my red blood.” “We are all connected,” writes Okumura, “one universal life force.” (more…)

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Dennis O' DriscollPhoto by Kim Haughton

Dennis O’ Driscoll
Photo by Kim Haughton

“He gave the art a good name,” remarked the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney of the Irish poet Dennis O ’Driscoll, who died suddenly on Christmas Eve at the age of fifty-eight. Dennis was the author of nine collections of graceful, civilized verse and one of the most respected voices in contemporary Irish letters. I am saddened by his early death, as are many of his fellow writers, Irish and American, who remember him as a true gentleman and a generous friend. (more…)

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“Calm the heart’s dark waters,” advised the third-century Chinese poet Lu Chi. “Collect from deep thoughts the proper names for things.”

I was reminded of Lu Chi’s admonition the other day, when I came upon a poem by the Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson (b. 1927). Entitled “She Fell Asleep in the Sun,” the poem concerns the children of unwed mothers.  Embedding Irish-Gaelic phrases within his English text, Hutchinson presents two, very different ways of describing such children. In so doing, he also presents two contrasting perspectives on human frailty.

“She fell asleep in the sun,” explains the narrator of the poem, is an Irish way of saying that a young woman got pregnant unintentionally. “That’s what they used to say,” the narrator recalls, “in South Fermanagh / of a girl who gave birth / unwed.” Shifting the scene to County Kerry, the narrator invokes a phrase used in that part of the country: “leanbh on ngrein: / a child from the sun.” As a third example, he describes another “child from the sun”: a “little lad running round a farmyard” in North Tipperary. Watching the child, his “granda” remarks that the boy is “garsuinin beag mishtake.” That phrase may be translated as “the little lad’s a mistake” or “the lad’s a little mistake.”

Taken together, the Irish phrases in Hutchinson’s poem express an attitude of realism, acceptance, and forgiveness. In subsequent stanzas, the narrator praises that attitude—and wonders whether it can survive in modern times:

A lyrical ancient kindness

that could with Christ accord.

Can it outlive technolatry?

or churches?


Not to mention that long, leadranach,

latinate, legal, ugly

twelve-letter name not

worthy to be called a name,

that murderous obscenity—to call


any child ever born

that excuse for a name

could quench the sun for ever.*

Pairing a narrow morality, as preached in certain churches, with the worship of technology, these lines inquire whether the Christ-like kindness of the older culture can endure in twentieth-century Ireland. Embodied in the phrases of an endangered language, that kindness seems itself endangered, a mode of feeling that may soon be leaving the world.

Among the forces eroding that mode of feeling, Hutchinson cites a  “legal, ugly, / twelve-letter name.”  As the reader may readily infer, that unspoken, Latinate name is illegitimate. In contrast to the vivid, concrete Irish phrases, the abstract English word conveys a tedious (leadranach), judgmental attitude toward the mother’s “mistake” and the child who must bear the consequences of her actions. Rather than welcome the child into the human family, the English word defines him as an outcast, murdering his spirit and quenching the life-giving sun.

Of the two perspectives in his poem, Hutchinson clearly favors the first. Adopting that perspective, we might empathize with the plight of mother and child. We might look into the conditions that brought her son into being and try to imagine the life ahead of him. And we might also admit that at times we have done foolish, irresponsible things ourselves. Adopting the second perspective, however, we might observe that the child is indeed illegitimate, as judged by accepted norms, and that to call him a child from the sun is to soften a social reality, poeticize a legal fact, and implicitly condone unwed motherhood. In passing we might note that calling a child a “mistake” may be only a little less damaging than calling him illegitimate.

One of the virtues of meditative practice, Zen included, is that it allows us the space and freedom to examine our responses to human frailty, whether judgmental or compassionate or somewhere in between, before taking action or saying a word. In contemporary American culture, the judgmental response has become reflexive, even in putatively “spiritual” circles. But a compassionate response is also possible, and the mind of compassion is often more penetrating than that of moral judgment, which tends to distance us from the conditions of human suffering. And should we deign to look deeply into the heart’s dark waters, we may discover that in our own ways we too are children from the sun.

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*Pearse Hutchinson, “She Fell Asleep in the Sun,” An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, ed. Wes Davis (Harvard University Press, 2010), 183-4.

Garden sculpture by Robin Caster Howard.

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In his memoir “Something to Write Home About” the poet Seamus Heaney recalls an experience from his rural childhood in Northern Ireland. Near his parents’ farm in Co. Derry, there was a ford in the River Moyola. A trail of stepping stones led from one bank to the other. Venturing into the river, “from one stepping stone to the next,” he felt a sense of security, mixed with a sense of daring:

Suddenly you were on your own. You were giddy and rooted to the spot at one and the same time. Your body stood stock still, like a milestone or a boundary mark, but your head would be light and swimming from the rush of the river at your feet and the big stately movement of the clouds in the sky above your head.*

Looking back at this experience, Heaney sees it as a metaphor for the capacity of human beings “to be attracted at one and the same time to the security of what is intimately known and the challenges and entrancements of what is beyond us”. For the poet Heaney, the experience is also a metaphor for a good poem, which “allows you to have your feet on the ground and your head in the air simultaneously.”

Seamus Heaney is not a Zen practitioner, though his poems often have a contemplative character. But his experience of standing “stock still” in the middle of a river, with the current flowing past him and the clouds moving above his head, has something in common with the practice of Zen meditation.

In practicing zazen, or seated meditation, we assume a posture that resembles a pyramid. Using the meditation cushion as a wedge, we keep our knees on the mat below, forming a triangle with our sitting bones. Leaning forward, then straightening up, we allow the spine to assume its natural curvature, erect but resilient. Exhaling fully in this position, we let our weight and our awareness drop into the lower abdomen. As we settle into stillness, we feel aligned and firmly grounded. To heighten our awareness of our stable posture, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we silently recite the verses, “Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. / Breathing out, I feel solid”.

Yet if the posture of meditation engenders feelings of solidity, it also fosters openness to experience. Because we are sitting still, we become more sensitive to movement within and around us, be it the flow of breath or the buzz of a fly at the window. Because our posture promotes relaxed alertness, we can observe the thoughts that cross our minds, as though they were clouds in the sky. And because we are resting in awareness, we can recognize those mental habits—those recurrent memories, fantasies, and expectations—that leave little room for anything more productive. Merely by bringing awareness to that mental traffic, we may cause it to diminish, clearing a space for creative thought.

In December, 1995, Seamus Heaney traveled to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. In “Crediting Poetry,” his Nobel Lecture, he reflected on his “journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival—whether in one’s poetry or one’s life—turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination”. For the meditative practitioner, whose aim is the deepening of awareness, wisdom, and compassion, the journey may be very different, but the underlying pattern is much the same. Successive acts of attention, made possible by the practitioner’s stable base, open the ego-centered self to a more expansive reality, be it the wideness of language or the ocean of human suffering. On the long path toward compassionate understanding, each moment fully realized becomes a stepping stone, each step a fresh arrival.

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*Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers (Faber, 2002), 48. For the full text of “Crediting Poetry” see http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1995/heaney-lecture.html

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The Burren is a limestone plateau in County Clare, Ireland. Occupying more than a hundred square miles, it is one of the quietest places on earth, and its gray expanse has often been likened to a lunar landscape. Yet it also hosts more than six hundred varieties of flowering plants, which thrive in reflected light.

Here is a poem set in the Burren. Its author is Michael Longley, one of Ireland’s finest poets and a lifelong resident of Belfast:

AT POLL SALACH

Easter Sunday, 1998

While I was looking for Easter snow on the hills

You showed me, like a concentration of violets

Or a fragment from some future unimagined sky

A single spring gentian shivering at our feet.

Poll Salach (pronounced pole sol-ock) means “dirty pool” in the Irish language. Poll Salach is situated in the northwest region of the Burren, where the limestone pavement runs into the sea. Despite its name, it is an austere and beautiful site.

The narrator of this poem is walking at Poll Salach, and with a little help from an unnamed companion, he discovers a spring gentian (Gentian verna), a solitary flower. Its five petals are a bright blue, and to the poet the flower resembles a “concentration of violets.” At its center is a pure white throat. According to Irish folklore, to pick a spring gentian is to precipitate an early death. To bring one indoors will cause your house to be struck by lightning.

It is significant that the narrator of this poem was looking for one thing—Easter snow—and discovered another. As the Zen teacher Toni Packer has remarked, most of the time we are looking for something, but we can also cultivate pure looking, or looking for its own sake. In that way we open ourselves to what is present in the here and now.

Something of that kind happens to the narrator of “Poll Salach,” though he is also thinking of the future. For him, the blue of the gentian conjures a “future unimagined sky,” which is to say, a future that has yet to be envisioned, much less determined.

Michael Longley wrote “At Poll Salach” on Easter Sunday, 1998, two days after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast. The Good Friday Agreement signaled an end to the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which had claimed more than 3,000 lives. In the ensuing decade, paramilitaries on both sides of the conflict have relinquished fighting and put their faith in peace and reconciliation.

Last month that truce was threatened, when dissidents from the Irish Republican Army killed two unarmed British soldiers and a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is now composed of Catholics as well as Protestants. This time, however, the leaders of the once-warring sides united in condemning the atrocities and renewing their commitment to peace.

It remains to be seen whether that peace will hold. Edna Longley, Michael’s wife and a prominent literary critic, has described the “shivering” gentian in her husband’s poem as a “tentative floral image,” which indeed it is. But it is also an image of hope, as potent in its way as the lilies of Easter Sunday.

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“At Poll Salach” appears in Michael Longley’s collection The Weather in Japan (Wake Forest University Press, 2000). It is reprinted here by permission of Wake Forest University Press (http://www.wfu.edu/wfupress/index.php).

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