Timorous or Bold

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I found a passage from a poem by Seamus Heaney, quite by chance. It stopped me in my tracks:

”The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life.”

Just coming out of a long period of living life beneath the surface of things, those words cut through to the bone. So I went in search of the poem in its entirety. In the process of looking, I found an article about Heaney in the New York Times, written by Francis X. Clines in 1983. Heaney is one of my favorite poets, and this article was full of such insightful gems that I can’t help but share a few.

Heaney is wary of the puff power of words and of the poet’s surface calling, which he senses as especially threatening in America, to offer tidy comforts. At times suspicious of the beauty of his own verse, Heaney, these days, can watch the laurels come. He fights to keep things basic, to re-mind himself of the simple wisdom of Finn MacCool, Ireland’s mythic national hero, that the best music in the world is the music of what happens. In his ”Elegy,” dedicated to Lowell, Heaney reminded himself, ”The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.”

**
He opens his own poetry notebook to remind himself again of the warning of the late French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: ”What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”

”That’s a wonderfully resonant idea,” Heaney says, talking with some of the awe of the postulant himself. ”If I could make poetry that could touch into that kind of thing, that is what I would like to do.”

**
As a poet, Heaney holds with the lesson laid down by Yeats: ”If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has that same root.”

In his conversation and classes, Heaney particularly cherishes and quotes Wordsworth and Yeats, and prizes their habit of composing aloud. ”Poetry as a revelation of the self to the self,” is one thing he finds in Wordsworth. In Yeats, he says, it’s the relation between the process and the finished poem: ”From the beginning things had to be well made, the soul had to be compelled to study, the images had to be masterful.”

He seems to find advice everywhere, agreeing with Robert Graves’s ”Dance on Words” – ”To make them move/you should start from lightning.” And with Whitman: ”Make the works. Do not go into criticisms or arguments at all. Make full blooded, rich, natural works.” From his earliest layman-reader’s enthusiasm with Gerard Manley Hopkins, through Lowell’s critical blessing, then friendship, extended during the American poet’s visits to Ireland, Heaney seems to relish whatever place he holds, promising or small, in the poetic tradition. He hardly pleases everyone. Some critics sensed an early failing – ”a marked reluctance to strike inwards, to cross the threshold, to explore the emotional and the psychological sources of his fear,” as one put it. But others feel Heaney’s later sonnet writings deal well with this. The critic Donald Hall wrote in The Nation of a range of Heaney themes and attributes – love, violence, desire, memory, intelligence -but then he added: ”For all the qualities I list, the most important is song.”

**
Heaney wants to be purged of poets’ tricks and perhaps for that reason he is willing to try to let a layman know how a poem is made. ”Of course, the reward of finishing the thing is pre-eminent still, perhaps,” he explains. ”But it’s much challenged by the actual pleasure of feeling something under your hand and growing.”

Heaney is a poet mindful of what he calls the ”amphibious” nature of Yeats. ”He lived the amphibious inner and outer life so well,” says Heaney. He smiles and summarizes the trick of the poet as if it were in mechanics, not magic: ”Being in two places at once is, of course, the only way.”

The statement is less casual than it seems, for Heaney’s poetry is marked by the amphibious, by the narrative lyric rooted in the outer life of place but nourished from his inner life. What he feels was his first real poem, ”Digging,” may still be, 19 years after its composition, the best introduction to Heaney’s voice.

**
”The political implications of lyric art are quite reactionary,” Heaney says. ”You are saying to people, ‘Everything’s all right.’ And, in fact, one of the things America exposes you to quite radically is people’s hunger to be comforted. And it’s very moving, and it’s authentic, but somehow you get co-opted into a language of comfort that is quite bogus.”

For his opening classes at Harvard, Heaney usually prescribes selections from East European poets, stark verse that is hardly the language of bogus comfort, but is ”antipoetry, a kind of wiresculpture poetry,” in which he finds that ”the density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

Francis X. Clines
New York Times

4 Comment

  1. Thanks for this post, Deborah. I sure would like to sit in on a few of his classes! “Bogus comfort” cracks me up. It reminds me of Annie Dillard, saying how Americans want to skip death. Maybe I need to read some of those east European poets. Afterall, that where my maternal ancestors are from.

  2. C, I’m so glad you found nuggets that spoke to you too. I just keep thinking about some of his phrases–Yeats being “amphibious” and the implications of lyrical art being reactionary. And of course those haunting lines quoted at the beginning. Ah, Seamus.

  3. catherine fieschi says:

    I came across these lines too – and they caused me to take a sharp breath. The beauty of their directness and clear-eyed humanism is the very best of Heaney and also illuminates my life at the moment. A gem.

  4. C, yes. I like your words–direct and clear-eyed humanism. Thanks for stopping by.

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