Seamus Heaney on Dante, Eliot, and Mandelstam

In Seamus Heaney’s long poem sequence “Station Island,” the speaker, on a pilgrimage, is visited by ghosts who rebuke him in an almost Dickensian fashion. “Part XII”, the final poem of the sequence, rouses me like a bugle call:

Then I knew him in the flesh
out there on the tarmac among the cars,
wintered hard and sharp as a blackthorn bush.

His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers
came back to me, though he did not speak yet,
a voice like a prosecutor’s or a singer’s,

cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite
as a steel nib’s downstroke, quick and clean,
and suddenly he hit a litter basket

with his stick, saying, ‘your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

It was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
already. Raindrops blew in my face (Opened Ground, 244-245)

The terza rima structure immediately calls to mind Dante, and in his essay “Envies and Identifications: Dante and the Modern Poet,” Heaney acknowledges this influence directly.

In the first part of this essay, he points out how other poets have written their own poetic projects into their translations of Dante. In the second part, he notes Dante’s influence on Eliot’s “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets, wherein “the poet exchanges intense but oddly neutral words with ‘a familiar compound ghost'” (242) and Heaney concludes “as a matter of literary fact, that the lines are more haunted by the squadrons of Dante’s terza rima than by the squadrons of Hitler’s Luftwaffe” (243) Heaney further points out that a major part of the poetic influence was that “Dante was actually giving Eliot the freedom to surrender to the promptings of his own unconscious.” (249) The parallels here, between Dante’s influence on Eliot, and both Dante and Eliot’s influence (as well as Dante’s influence through Eliot) on Heaney himself, could not be made more clear.
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Why Heaney?

I first encountered Seamus Heaney in person during my undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. I had originally been admitted to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science double-major program, having won two of the university’s most prestigious scholarships, been introduced to the Chancellor, assigned a high-ranking advisor from the Engineering faculty, and generally been welcomed to campus as a potential next Bill Gates. This was during the height of the dot-com era, when venture capitalists wooed by the poetic visions of high-tech courtiers flung open (seemingly) bottomless coffers.

Imagine the look on my guidance counselor’s face when I told her that I wanted to transfer into the English department. My grades were good; what was wrong? I told her that I simply wanted to pursue something more — how could I say it? — human. She suggested that I consider a career in the exciting new field of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research.

After signing a legal contract wherein I promised that I would not, under any circumstance, try to beg my way back into the Engineering department, I found myself sitting auditorium-style with three hundred other students, eagerly attending a lecture by Robert Hass. Within minutes, I felt all three hundred students disappear, and I seemed to be sitting fireside with my favorite poetry-loving uncle. Professor Hass mentioned that Seamus Heaney was returning to Berkeley to discuss his new translation of Beowulf, and to read some poems. He encouraged us all to attend.
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Open Thanks

My friend and colleague Kelly Forrister (née O’Brien) stopped by this evening to hand me an autographed copy of Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems: 1966-1987. She studied with him and several others on a summer course at Trinity College, Dublin, and had pints with him after class. This was just after his appointment at Oxford, and before his Nobel Prize. I am touched that she would give me something so personally meaningful.

Funnily enough, although we only live a few pretty blocks apart in the sleepy idyll that is Ojai, she found out about my rekindled interest in Heaney from this website. Who says blogging doesn’t have its rewards? In the end I have only to say: thank you, Kelly. I will use it well.

Help Me Find Poets III

I am heading into the third semester at Pacific, where in lieu of ongoing commentaries on individual works, I will be writing a longer critical essay. At this point, I am thinking about writing about Seamus Heaney, and in particular how he successfully navigates numerous dialectic elements in contemporary poetry, such as:

Narration Lyricism
Free verse Meter & rhyme
Meaning Precious Nonsense
Stichic Stanzaic
Plain Speech Elevated diction

In addition, I will continue to read widely from a variety of sources. Here is what I am thinking about adding to my reading list:

On Poetry

  • Fredrick Smock, Poetry And Compassion (thank you, Mr. Carter)
  • Dorianne Laux and Kim Adonizzo, The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry
  • Stephen Berg (ed.), Singular Voices: American Poetry Today


  • Umberto Saba, Songbook: Selected Poems from the Canzoniere of Umberto Saba (trans. Stephen Sartarelli)
  • Marvin Bell, The Book Of The Dead Man and Mars Being Red
  • Paul Muldoon, Horse Latitudes
  • Jane Mead, The Lord and the General Din of the World
  • Ron Silliman (ed.), In The American Tree
  • Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems
  • Eavan Boland, Selected Poems
  • Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996
  • Seamus Heaney, District and Circle
  • Medbh McGuckian, Selected Poems: 1978-1994
  • David St. John, Study for the World’s Body: New and Selected Poems
  • Tony Curtis (ed.), The Art of Seamus Heaney
  • Paul Celan, Poems of Paul Celan: A Bilingual German/English Edition

Ideas For Poetry Book Structure

  • Issa, The Year Of My Life (trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa)
  • Basho, Back Roads To Far Towns (trans. Kamaike Susumu and Cid Corman)
  • Robert Lowell, Life Studies
  • Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (trans. Richard Howard)

This is only a cursory sketch for now. Any suggestions?

Seamus Heaney’s Tricky Music

The aims of the stichic and lyric forms are not mutually exclusive. But when the successful elements of the stichic — such as a sense of plain speech, teleological design, and a surprising or revelatory conclusion — can be reconciled with the successful elements of lyric — such as the dense aural pleasures of rhythm and rhyme, and the compounded significance of the broken line — a rare kind of fusion takes place. Consider Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Mint:”

It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.

But, to be fair, it also spelled promise
And newness in the back yard of our life
As if something callow yet tenacious
Sauntered in green alleys and grew rife.

The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday
Mornings when the mint was cut and loved:
My last things will be first things slipping from me.
Yet let all things go free that have survived.

Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against
Because we’d failed them by our disregard.

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Seamus Heaney on Lyric Poetry’s Ring of Truth

I turned back to Heaney, like an old trusted friend, to see what I could learn about lyric poetry, and found this excerpt compelling:

… there is another kind of adequacy which is specific to lyric poetry. This has to do with the ‘temple inside our hearing’ which the passage of the poem calls into being. It is an adequacy deriving from what Mandelstam called ‘the steadfastness of speech articulation’, from the resolution and independence which the entirely realized poem sponsors. It has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem’s concerns or the poet’s truthfulness. In fact, in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself. And it is the unappeasable pursuit of this note, a note tuned to its most extreme in Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan and orchestrated to its most opulent in John Keats, it is this which keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice behind all the other informing voices.

-Seamus Heaney, The Nobel Lecture, 1995

It would seem Heaney is advocating, to alter Dickinson’s famous quote, that poets can only “tell all the truth by telling it slant.” Or, as Ella Fitzgerald has been wailing at me through speakers of the coffee shop in which I find myself typing this now, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”