These Three Poems by Seamus Heaney are given in the order of their publication, with one each drawn from his first three books. (I’m reading Opened Ground now, a volume of selected works that came out after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.)
Heaney has an incredible sense of sound, making each word count and turning every short line into a pleasure. It is interesting how Heaney seems to approach his early poems (the first two volumes) with so much humility, focusing on observation of his environment, and writing with ready material, especially of his childhood, without hype or grandiosity.
Moore was very stoical and firm in life, but if she held out the joy she displays in poetry in some physical craft she would have made a marvelous and playful dancer.
The Fish wade through black jade. Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps adjusting the ash-heaps; opening and shutting itself like an injured fan. The barnacles which encrust the side of the wave, cannot hide there for the submerged shafts of the sun, split like spun glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness into the crevices— in and out, illuminating the turquoise sea of bodies. The water drives a wedge of iron through the iron edge of the cliff; whereupon the stars, pink rice-grains, ink- bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green lilies, and submarine toadstools, slide each on the other. All external marks of abuse are present on this defiant edifice— all the physical features of ac- cident—lack of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and hatchet strokes, these things stand out on it; the chasm-side is dead. Repeated evidence has proved that it can live on what can not revive its youth. The sea grows old in it.
June Hunt, who has a dynamic Christian counseling program online and on the radio in many cities, has said that depression can be pictured as a heavy weight on the heart, like a brick on a pillow. If it lies there too long, the pillow may not take its old shape anymore.
When I met June she was so kind and joyous with me, but I could tell she wondered why I couldn’t at all bring that energy to her, despite my love for her.
She asked me my name and I told her, they call me it, which. Or they did. They said I was a preposition. Then I found out my name meant happy, but I almost never am – maybe someday, I said.
What device does nature have to enlarge our sense? What things strewn on our path give us pause and help us answer the questions we’ve been collecting? I know these things happen sometimes in conversation. That is how women are heart doctors.
This post is not meant to be an elaborate psychoanalysis. I just wanted to say that my customary grief and heaviness seems somehow to be surfacing in my writing in a new way. Instead of writing poems that labor to express the whole burden of the sadness, as with some elegies, or sad love poems, here it seems like something fresh and living is sprouting from the old grief, like loam rich with black manure. The outward ornament is broken through, there is more wholeness psychologically to the writing, and a plainer style. Other styles are still cropping up, but with some of these new pieces there seems to be a natural mystery poking through. Instead of being “good with words” or “phrasing”, which is nice, these prefer something else, and I am realizing now that phrasing and such just doesn’t get one very far in real poetry.
And I am not very far. However, perhaps it will help to gravitate to where the writing wants to go, and learn from there. James Wright is a great champion in this plain style. He learned to repose on the facts of his lived experience as charged content the reader would find worthwhile. It is amazing that he does not just try to make himself goofy or puff himself with horror or any type of enhancer, but trusts in the plain truth.
I’ve been reading Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella and had to post this favorite because it thrilled me so much. Sidney’s eloquence here is a natural overflow of real love. The music tends to be sinuous and has a sometimes surprising, leaping pulse.
While Shakespeare in his Sonnets makes imagination, perhaps not feeling, the workhorse of most of his rhetorical lines; Sidney finds the metaphors, even the thoughts, which make do, and fills them with his feeling.
(Image is Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach is kind of the 19th century’s nihilist version of William Carlos Williams “This Is Just To Say”. He has formulated a classic slice of sublimated spitefulness; turns a plate of your sweetest plums reduced to a pile of pits. My comments with Dover Beach focus on how he teases us with the appearance of a formal poem in various ways at various times, but really only wants to lead us on to felt trouble.
Hayden’s Poetry Foundation Bio talks about his somewhat unique place in African American literature as a great African American poet who focused on race and ethnicity, yet nonetheless denied the limitations of a narrow label for himself. At least, he seems to be one of the first major black poets to take that stand so seriously.
[From the poetry foundation:]
“‘In the 1960s,’ William Meredith wrote in his foreword to Collected Prose, ‘Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. . . . He would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity.’ Ironically, much of Hayden’s best poetry is concerned with black history and the black experience.”
Perhaps Hayden’s crowning achievement is the longish poem, Middle Passage. It is gloriously complex and fine, with meaningful dramatic surprises throughout. It is also a grisly depiction of moral baseness set with rich, elevated language. I suppose it must be one of my favorite poems. In 1976 Hayden became “Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress”, that is, our Poet Laureate.