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Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

In an interview many years ago, a journalist asked the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) for his thoughts on aging. At the time, Heaney must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. With his usual precision of language, leavened by a wryly ironic smile, Heaney remarked that growing older had brought “the inevitable attenuations.” He did not elaborate, but anyone of a certain age could readily fill in the blanks. And more important than the words or the missing details was the attitude behind them, an attitude at once rare and profoundly liberating.

Like forty million other men and women over the age of fifty, I belong to the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. As a privilege of membership I receive two bimonthly publications: the AARP Magazine, which is printed on glossy paper and vaguely resembles People magazine; and the AARP Bulletin, which is printed on newsprint and resembles a tabloid. The Magazine endeavors to entertain, educate, and inspire me, while perhaps selling an Acorn Chairlift or a life-insurance policy along the way. By contrast, the Bulletin aspires to keep me informed and alert me to financial and health-related hazards threatening older people. Together these complementary organs of our consumer culture purport to enhance my so-called golden years and help me feel more secure. All too often, however, their effect is quite the opposite. (more…)

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800px-Taughannock_Falls_overlook“As everyone knows,” declares Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851), “meditation and water are wedded forever.”

Melville’s schoolmaster-turned-sailor makes this remark in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, as he reflects on the lure of water, especially to those of a contemplative disposition, who are naturally drawn to ponds, lakes, rivers, and the sea. Ishmael is not a meditative practitioner in any formal sense, and as Daniel Herman, a Melville scholar and Zen practitioner, notes, “Melville almost certainly never in his life heard the word ‘Zen’.” Yet Ishmael’s remark is relevant to the discipline of Zen meditation, insofar as that remark calls attention to two salient elements of the practice. By its nature, water visibly embodies the quality of impermanence, one of the primary objects of Zen contemplation. At the same time, water also embodies the quality of constancy, which Zen teachings urge us to contemplate. “How can I enter Zen?” a student asked a master. “Can you hear the murmuring of the mountain stream?” the master replied. “Enter there.” (more…)

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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 dearest 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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