Auld Lang Syne

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Seamus Heaney is poet of the day for me today, but he is not alone

I'm up early, although I certainly don't believe in this practice. I have tidied my desk and sharpened a few pencils (highlighter pencils) and all my electronics are charged and ready for today's use. I have now turned on my music and am listening to "Deep Purple" by Nino Temple and April Stevens. All set. (breakfast once my stomach is awake)

In my straightening out of desk, I came upon my copy of Seamus Heaney's Selected Poems, 1966-1987, buried under some papers. I laugh as I recall that I once decided that I ought to always read poems from this volume alongside Richard Wilbur's New and Collected and Anthony Hecht's Collected Earlier Poems. These poets are my holy trinity of poets. I know, I know, where are the women poets? I have female poet heroes too, of course (Elizabeth Bishop, Kay Boyle, ESV Millay, Marianne Moore, et all) but these particular male poets share the aesthetic that has formed, and continues to form me as a poet. Blame it on "the canon" that I was exposed to the poetry of my triumvirate before I got tuned in to the women poets. Nevertheless it is true that when I need a big awakening in what poetry IS, I go to these three and their poems to "revise" me. I see how important it is to be well-read. I see how important diction is to embodiment in a poem. I'll quote here from each of my "guys" to show you what I mean about diction and how careful use of concrete details can make a poem SHINE on the page:

Wilbur (from First Snow in Alsace)

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

Heaney (from Digging)

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Hecht (from The Grapes)

I stood beside a table near a window,
Gazing down at a crystal bowl of grapes
In ice-water. They were green grapes, or, rather,
They were a sort of pure, unblemished jade,
Like turbulent ocean water, with misted skins,
Their own pale, smoky sweat, or tiny frost.


And all those little bags of glassiness,
Those clustered planets, leaned their eastern cheeks
Into the sunlight, each one showing a soft
Meridian swelling where the thinning light
Mysteriously tapered into shadow,


And watching I could almost see the light
Edge slowly over their simple surfaces,
And feel the sunlight moving on my skin
Like a warm glacier. And I seemed to know
In my blood the the meaning of sidereal time
And know my little life had somehow crested.

Well, it can hardly get better than this. These lines make me weak in the knees, make me want to write, make me want to give each of these poets a huge hug. [Two of the three are still living, so that's a possibility I suppose.] At any rate, I am determined to keep these three volumes ON my desk in case of a fire. I would certainly grab these if I were told I could only have three books for the rest of my life. Marooned on a desert island? Yep. These three in my rucksack. I never tire of the poems in these books. I learn something new every time I read the poems. EVERY time.

I won't taint YOUR experience of the above lines by analysis of them. But suffice it to say, I want you to digest them in a way that is meaningful and helpful to your own writing or reading of poetry. In my Wilbur study, I may make a comment on Heaney's or Hecht's poems from time to time, placing Wilbur's poems in the company of poems from the other two. They exist for me in a triangle, perfectly supporting one another, balanced, solid.

For today, it is Heaney. I will take notice of how he does what he does in the following [recommended] poems: Bye-Child, Follower, Bone Dreams, From the Frontier of Writing, and The Guttural Muse.  I will read each poem several times, at intervals throughout the day. I find this to be a great way to let the poems IN to my unconscious mind.

NOTE: I also will read Dana Gioia's Nosferatu's Serenade, as I am committing that poem to memory which requires repetition on a daily basis.

It makes me smile to know that I have these poets available to me as teachers, by way of their poems. It is comforting to know that I don't have to travel to find help when I am bogged down in my own work and feeling like I am writing the same poem over and over (am I?) or when my diction seems to fall flat.   I can read Bye-Child  and find permission to write the unspeakable, have the freedom available to me as a poet to take a stand and do it in stunning language and image. I have skills with language, but often fail to give myself permission. Heaney and the others give me not only permission, but also urge me.

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