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Posts Tagged ‘seamus heaney’

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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Seamus Heaney, 1984 Alfred, New York

Seamus Heaney, 1984
Alfred, New York

As the world knows, the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney died last month at the age of seventy-four. On the day of his funeral, former Irish Senator Maurice Hayes, father of the actress Margaret (“Maggie”) Hayes, recalled that Heaney brought a handwritten poem to Margaret’s christening. “I must put that away,” Hayes said to himself, “because by the time she is getting married he will have the Nobel prize.” Regettably, the manuscript eventually went missing, Hayes’s best efforts notwithstanding. “I put it away so carefully,” he ruefully reflected, “that I couldn’t find it.”*

Something similar happened here in the village of Alfred, New York, though the circumstances were rather different. Seamus Heaney visited Alfred University in January, 1984 to give a reading. He stayed in the home of Carol (“CB”) Burdick, an adjunct professor of English who frequently hosted visiting writers. At the time, Seamus was suffering from a toothache, and for most of his reading he kept his palm pressed to his cheek. Early the next morning, he assuaged his pain by writing a piece of light verse, a self-ironic poem modeled after William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers” (1508). As he was leaving, Seamus thanked CB for her hospitality and presented her with the handwritten manuscript. (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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Rowan berries by Moor Lane

Now that the leaves are falling, and the hills are splashed with color, I’m reminded of an autumnal poem by the twelfth-century Japanese poet Saigyo:

INSECTS ON AN EVENING ROAD

On the road with not a soul

to keep me company,

as evening falls

katydids lift their voices

and cheer me along

Uchigusuru

hito naki michi no

yusare wa

koe nite okuru

kutsuwamushi kana (more…)

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According to the fifth-century Indian sage Bodhidharma, one of the founders of the Zen tradition, Zen is a mode of inquiry “not dependent on words and letters.” It is a practice of direct seeing, based on direct experience. Language in general and conceptual language in particular can come between our minds and the realities of this world. We can mistake the word moon for the moon itself.

Yet, as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, author of more than sixty books, affirms, “Writing is a practice of looking deeply.”* Through the act of writing, as through the practice of meditation, we can become intimate with our lives. We can stop and look deeply into what is occurring, and as the poet Eavan Boland once put it, we can fully “experience our experience.”  In these ways, as in many others, the parallel practices of meditative inquiry and meditative writing share a common purpose. And in the works of the greatest contemplative writers—Thomas Merton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Matsuo Basho, to name a few—the two practices are so closely allied as to be one and the same.

That is certainly true of the Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney (b. 1939), whose poems and essays bear the marks of a meditative temperament. And in his poem “Personal Helicon,” he offers an illuminating metaphor for the process of “looking deeply,” even as his poem enacts that process.

The title of Heaney’s poem alludes to Mount Helicon, the sanctuary of the Muses in Greek mythology. By association, it also alludes to the Hippocrene spring, the legendary source of poetic inspiration, which was situated on Mount Helicon. Yet at first glance the poem appears to be a fond sketch of childhood, set in rural County Derry and centering on the poet’s early fascination with wells. “They could not keep me from wells,” Heaney declares in his opening stanza. “I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells / Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.” In subsequent stanzas, he recalls particular wells in the Northern Irish countryside, including one “so deep you saw no reflection in it,” and a shallow well in a ditch, which “fructified like any aquarium.”

In his closing stanzas, however, Heaney turns from fond reminiscence to mature reflection on his life’s work:


Others had echoes, gave back your own call

With a clean new music in it. And one

Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.


Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.


In the first of these stanzas, Heaney acknowledges both the childhood pleasure of hearing echoes in a well and the not-so-pleasant experience of seeing a rat in the water. Understood figuratively, the image of the rat suggests foul and frightening aspects of the self and the world, revealed by the process of looking deeply. And in the closing stanza, he likens that process to the act of writing, which allows him both to see himself and to evoke what he has elsewhere called “the mysterious otherness of the world.” Like the child’s voice echoing in a well, the mature poet’s rhymes conjure the dark unknown. They create a state of mind known to literary analysts as “negative capability” and to Zen practitioners as “Don’t-know mind” or the mind of “not-knowing.”  Abiding with confidence and courage in that state, the poet and meditative practitioner are open to infinite possibilities.

Not everyone can write a poem with the depth and precision of “Personal Helicon.” But anyone with pen and paper can enlist the act of writing as a tool of meditative inquiry. As the American poet William Stafford once remarked, writing is “one of the great free human activities,” which anyone can pursue, whether as a literary vocation or as a vehicle for “looking deeply.” Please try it for yourself.

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*Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax 1998), 83.

Seamus Heaney’s reading of “Personal Helicon” may be heard at:

http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/heaney/personal_helicon.php

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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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