For the first half of the reading, Seamus Heaney was “in conversation” with another poet. They sat on the stage in wide modern chairs, either side of a low table, and the other poet leaned forwards to ask questions. They were questions that prompted factual answers, and they were not the questions to which I wanted to know the answer.
The answers constructed a cold chronological curriculum vitae, bloodless. The small farm on which he grew up. His large family and the two women in the house. The village school housed in two Nissan huts and later the grammar school a world away from the village. His teaching jobs. Giving up the teaching jobs to be A Poet. Moving from the Ireland of Ulster to the Ireland of Wicklow. Working apart from his family at Harvard. He read a couple of poems. One called “Digging”, about using his pen to find memories. Another, from his brand new collection, about a fountain pen given to him by his parents. But I struggled to find Seamus Heaney in the answers. Finally, time running out, the other poet asked what poetry was for. Heaney answered, he said, as a “reader”. He talked about how the threads connecting one poet to an earlier poet bound us together. How we shared collective emotions through our reading of poetry. How it constructed a culture where we all had read the same things. It wasn’t an answer that was personal, it didn’t address what a poem means to an individual, nor did it address what a poem means to the writer of the poem.
I chased my thoughts around with my literary friend during the interval. Afterwards Heaney read some poems. A few about his mother. I envied him the memories that he encased in his evocative words and threw into our laps. I searched around in my head for memories to match the poignancy of his and came up with nothing. In “Harvest Bow”, a poem about his taciturn father, he wrote of “gleaning the unsaid off the palpable” and I rolled that beautiful “palpable” around in my head and could think of fleeting moments of connection that I will forever hold dear, but never with her. I’ve wondered whether that moment of connection is felt by the other person and whether that matters. Did his mother remembers peeling those potatoes with him? Was it a memory she cherished and polished as he did?
As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.
Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
Harked to their gift and worked with fine intent
Until your fingers moved somnambulant:
I tell and finger it like braille,
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable,
And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall—
You with a harvest bow in your lapel,
Me with the fishing rod, already homesick
For the big lift of these evenings, as your stick
Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes
Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes
Nothing: that original townland
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.
The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser—
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.