Weekend Poem: Clearances by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney passed away yesterday. A poet, playwright, essayist, teacher and patriot, he was much-loved by many the world over, but particularly in his home country, Ireland, where they gave him the same stature as one of his predecessors, W. B. Yeats, and called him, affectionately, “Famous Seamus”. He was, in the great Irish tradition, a storyteller, above all, with the folksy, personal, religious, medieval, literary, mythical and socio-political all blending together into a unique and timeless voice. And, the key themes of love, nature and memory recurred throughout his oeuvre.

Having grown up with a father who was a farmer and cattle-dealer, Heaney’s early works were about rural life. A particular poem, Follower, describing his father pulling a plough, has some vivid images, yet what shines out unmistakably is the child’s absolute adoration for the father. Mossbawn, the farm where he grew up, became an almost-mythical, magical place in many poems. His “middle period” works covered much about the political unrest and civil wars in Ireland – e.g. “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing”. Towards the end of his life, especially after his stroke, his writing became more about recollections. Or, as some reviewers said, “portraits of the artist as an old man”. And as this handful of poems from his last collection, Human Chain illustrate.

When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, the committee announced that they were awarding it to him “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”. In the presentation speech, Mr. Östen Sjöstrand, member of the Swedish Academy, reminded people that:

For Seamus Heaney, poetry, like the soil, is evidently something to be ploughed and turned over.

The poet has little time for the Emerald Isle of the tourist brochures. For him, Ireland is, first and foremost, The Bogland.

In his Nobel lecture, Heaney shared why/how he was drawn to poetry as his forte as a young man in Co. Wicklow:

Yet there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself. We want the surprise to be transitive like the impatient thump which unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set, or the electric shock which sets the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm. We want what the woman wanted in the prison queue in Leningrad, standing there blue with cold and whispering for fear, enduring the terror of Stalin’s regime and asking the poet Anna Akhmatova if she could describe it all, if her art could be equal to it. And this is the want I too was experiencing in those far more protected circumstances in Co. Wicklow when I wrote the lines I have just quoted, a need for poetry that would merit the definition of it I gave a few moments ago, as an order “true to the impact of external reality and … sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being.

Of the many reviews, interviews and obituaries that have been surfacing or re-surfacing over the last 24 hours, I had to go back to a 6-minute interview from PBS’ Newshour in 2011 where Heaney talked about his last collection of poems (not knowing, of course, that it would be so). It’s classic Heaney – unpretentious as always and honest with the precision of a pin point. Do watch the attached video to hear his wonderful poem reading with that charming Irish lilt.

As both a professor and an artistic collaborator, Heaney encouraged young talent. In 2012, he collaborated with Mohammed Fairouz, an Arab-American music composer, whose works cross across practically all musical genres and are influenced by both literary / philosophical texts and the five continents that his life has spanned thus far. Heaney provided Fairouz with 3 poems that the latter set as choral performances, together titled “Anything Can Happen”, after the main poem, which Heaney wrote about 9/11.

As you might have guessed, from the many poems linked throughout this post, choosing one to feature as the weekend poem has been difficult. Heaney’s poems are like translucent threads of light illuminating many storied worlds – his, mine, yours. “Clearances” was about his mother’s death. Being the oldest of nine children and having experienced sibling death early in the family, he had a special bond with both his parents and, as we see in this poem, particularly his mother. She was a plain and pragmatic woman, from a family of mill-workers, growing up during the Ulster industrial revolution. Beyond his boyhood love of her, the next few lines speak touchingly of how, as a grown man, he took care to avoid embarrassing her with his lettered ways:

Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek.
She’d manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, ‘You
Know all them things.’ So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.

Read the entire poem, “Clearances”, by Seamus Heaney. From ‘Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996‘.