Archive for the ‘Seamus Heaney’ Tag

“Initiates of Darkness”   Leave a comment

The page is never blank, though it looks that way each time I click “new post”. Always the track of beast flares across the path, the flight or song of bird ignites the sky. All beings burn with life. Any blankness I may encounter is specific terrain I’ve chosen somewhere, sometime. Now to learn just where I took that quirk in the path. I tremble as I ask, I’ve sown it, so let me own it.

If “I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places” as Frost says in “Desert Spaces”, I also carry within me other worlds upon worlds, mirroring all the ones around me. I stand at a mid-point, and so much flows through me, through us all. Do I even notice? (Do I want to?)

Seamus Heaney observes of these lines that

… whatever risk they run of making the speaker seem to congratulate himself too easily as an initiate of darkness, superior to the deluded common crowd … they still succeed convincingly … [an] undeniable emotional occurrence which the whole poem represents.

I call it an emotional occurrence, yet it is preeminently a rhythmic one, an animation via the ear of the whole nervous apparatus …

If I’m looking for awen, for spiritual energy and music and delight, for movement into the wider self that includes but never stops with the apparent world, then rhythm and melody will take me there — the drums of Beltane beating on my inner ear, the hum and whisper of birdsong and newly-minted leaves. (Doubt just becomes boring, no use.) Once out of my head and into such prayer and listening, the recovery of life-giving vision can proceed. Lock myself into my own concerns, though, and that’s where I’ll remain. Meanwhile the cosmos keeps saying enlarge, enlarge — “an animation via the ear of the whole nervous apparatus”. Let me sync with what’s playing all around me. Ah, there it is again, that Song in all things.

Bagby

Bagby at play.  Photo courtesy NY Classical Review.

Follow me, friend, as I take this tangent: tonight I’m leading the second of two local discussions of Beowulf, Tolkien, and Benjamin Bagby, who performs the first third of the Old English poem in the original language, accompanying himself on a reproduction harp. Bagby’s coming to perform in Vermont next month — the surface occasion for tonight’s discussion.

We’ll talk, among other things, about wyrd, that old word that still half-lives in modern English weird, lives more fully in the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, and most fully in its original sense of the pattern of things which is both destiny or fate, and also the stage for meaningful human choice and action. Beowulf falls to wyrd, but also survives because of it.

Anglo-Saxonist author Stephen Pollington puts it this way:

The analogy of a spider web is usefully employed in considering wyrd. Each section of the web is a discreet part of the whole, yet the tiniest ensnared insect will set the entire web vibrating. Whether the spider wins her dinner depends on how skillfully she has woven her web, how quickly she reacts, and the chances of the captured insect to struggle free. The web is wyrd, but what the actors do upon it will decide the outcome.

Wyrd, says the poem, oft nereð unfægne man þonne his ellen deah. Taking Pollington’s analogy to heart, I render this as “The Pattern often saves an undoomed man when his courage holds” (Beowulf line 572). And I repeat to myself the charm: What the actors do upon the Web will decide the outcome.

We’re all “initiates of darkness”, of fates and destinies set in motion and still unfolding, yes — but that doesn’t define us. It just leavens the crusty bread that we are. Without a taste of that Old Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, what after all could we manage to accomplish? The first breath of any opposition would blow us away like dandelion fluff, like breadcrumbs. (No inner resources, I can hear my grandmother sniff.) We didn’t start the fire, sings Billy Joel. It was always burning/Since the world’s been turning.

Part of the journey beyond Druidry 101, as on any path worthy of the name, is the discovery of the usefulness of opposition. In careful measure (wyrd measures out some, yes, but so do I, each day), it gives us something to push against, a resistance, like weights in the gym, the settings on the stairclimber, the hills that are part of my dog-walk. I find out where I am, in the face of it — it’s potent in dispelling my illusions. It’s part of our training for what a world of polarities means. Armed and tested with this hard-won wisdom, we’re ready for realms of light. A Druid can aspire to live, serve and create anywhere. (And until that day of fuller mastery, there’s today with its choices and challenges. The poor, says the Galilean master, you will always have with you. What is my poverty?)

Some days, of course, I long for a cosmos that’s easy, or even just easy-er. But, I notice, after some time there, I’m restless again, eager to jump back into the fray and play of a more demanding laboratory world, where just about everything is subject to change and experimentation. So what happens if I take this tangent?

wantastiquet trail

Mount Wantastiquet trail.

Meanwhile, I pray with the Leaf-Lords and Ladies around me:

Oak, shade my path. I welcome your wisdom.
Birch, green my way. I call on your courage.
Hemlock, heal my heart. I fast under your foliage.
Pine of all lands, I gather your gifts.
Tree companions all, I seek the shelter of your boughs.

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Images: Bagby.

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Seamus Heaney and Me   3 comments

Irish poet, Nobel Prize winner, essayist and translator Seamus Heaney died earlier today in Dublin at 74.  More than once I’ve quoted Heaney on this blog, not least because his work is accessible without being Hallmark-y, literate but not stuffy, and redolent of earth and earthy intelligence.  In other words, delightfully Druidical.  Rather than go all lit-critic here, I’ll give a tribute in the form of a modest personal anecdote. If I need any justification, we’re both farmers’ sons.

heaney2In January 1984 Heaney offered a 7:00 pm reading and book-signing as part of the long-running Brockport Writers Forum at the College of Brockport, a school that’s part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.  I mention this because at the time I held an unhealthy disdain for the SUNY schools.  They weren’t Ivies, and though a farmer’s son, I cultivated a decided snobbery that looks simply ludicrous now.  I also didn’t know then about the caliber of writers who read at the Forum.  Nevertheless a SUNY school reading series was sponsoring a poet I greatly admired, so there was nothing for it but to sidestep my arrogance if I wanted to hear him.  (Picture him nearly three decades younger, with graying rather than white hair.)

I recall the date in part because that winter I was in my mid-20s, between schools, waiting to hear on college applications, and back to working on my dad’s dairy farm, a hard though sane life I’d largely escaped during my undergrad years.  Our herd of some fifty Holsteins meant we were a “family farm” which only signifies that everyone in the family has to chip in for the farmer to make a go of it at all.  That winter day was typical Western New York January:  cold, blustery, with a spatter of snow gusting through a short gray Wednesday a scant month past the solstice and the shortest day.  I’d have to leave after evening milking if I wanted to attend at all.  The drive sounds easy enough, some 40 miles almost due north of us, and all on decent paved roads, but what with winter, night and traffic, that meant over an hour, if I was lucky.

Southern Wisconsin Hit By Major BlizzardIn spite of a late start milking, and the worsening weather, I determined to go, cursing slow drivers most of the way.  By the time I arrived, found campus parking and located the venue, the reading had ended.  It was standing room only in the auditorium, so I leaned against the wall at the back.  The moderator was thanking Heaney, who had moved to a cafeteria lunch table set up down front for the signing.  With no time to change before I left home, I was still dressed in work pants, steel-toed boots (anyone casually stepped on by a half-ton cow gets the why), stained winter jacket and stocking hat — still fragrant of cows, corn silage and manure.

I debated whether it would be worth staying.  I’d brought with me a worn paperback of Heaney’s Selected Poems, though I’m not usually one to collect author signatures.  But the crowd was thinning rapidly because of the deteriorating weather, so I made up my mind to salvage something from the trip.  By the time I joined the signing line against the mostly departing crowd, I held a spot near the end.  From what I could see of him as we slowly inched forward, Heaney looked tired, a half-finished bottle of whiskey at his elbow.  When I finally stood before him, though, he must have caught a whiff of barn on me.  He raised his head, took my measure, his gaze sharpening, and grinned at me, then wordlessly signed with a flourish.  At that moment and after, the trip was worth it, not because I got his signature, but because we had connected, however briefly.  It was worth it because it forms part of my own vocation as poet.  Many are called, but few are chosen.  But still, many are called.

I like to think he took my presence as a compliment, a plowboy poetry-reader come to hear the poet-speaker for our human tribe, the stamp of farm still on my clothes.  I like to think of him doing something similar as a boy or young man.  I like to think in a small way my presence mirrored what he wrote with and about: words as part of this world of darkness and light, of sky and soil and storms and time, of blood stirring at these things as we walk through them all our days.

And that’s it, except of course it’s never finished till breath is.  The story is more about me than Heaney, but I remember the day and the details because of Heaney, so they belong at least a little to him too, to his memory, now.  I’ll atone for the self-indulgence here; Heaney deserves the last words — these, from his poem “Postscript,” cited in full:

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

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Images:  Heaney; barn in winter.

Updated 1:31 pm 30 Aug 13

Posted 30 August 2013 by adruidway in Druidry, poetry, Seamus Heaney, writing

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The Four Powers–Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 1   4 comments

[Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5]

This is the first of a series on the powers of magic.

heaney“All I know is a door into the dark,” says Seamus Heaney in the first line of his poem “The Forge.”  In some way that’s where we all begin.  At three, four, five years old, some things come into our world already bright, illuminated, shining, on fire even.  The day is aflame with sun, the golden hours pass until nightfall, and then come darkness and sleep and dreaming.  We wander through our early days, learning this world, so familiar-strange all at once.  We grow inwardly too, discovering trust, betrayal, lying, love, fear, the pleasure of imagination, the difference between visible and invisible worlds.  Which ones do people talk about, admit to themselves?  Which ones do people around us ignore, or tell us don’t matter?

Much of our knowing is experiential during those years.  We learn about the physical laws of our planet, the bumps and bruises and sometimes breaks of childhood a testament to the hard edges of this world.  We learn some of its softnesses too: favorite foods, the touch of loved ones, the warm fur of pets, a dog’s nose meeting ours, the new air on the skin that spring and summer bring, the delight of rain and puddles and baths and fresh-laundered clothes.

child-at-shoreThen in some parts of the world comes another learning, one that typically fills much of our days for the next decade or so:  a knowing about, the accumulation in school of facts and statistics and words and ideas, math and languages and art,  science and history.  Still some experiential learning comes through as a matter of course — Bunsen burners glowing, magnesium and potassium in chemistry doing their flaming and bubbling tricks mixed with other elements.  The practice of basketball, baseball, volleyball, football and soccer, the sprints and catches and throws and spins and tricks, the correct forms and personal styles.  Wrestling, dance, music, track and field, teaching the body to know beyond thought, to form and shape habits useful precisely when they become habit and no longer demand our full attention.

And other knowledge of the body, too:  the awakening of sexuality, the chemical prods and prompts of hormones to stir the body into further change, the powers of attraction and desire, the experimentation with consciousness-altering that seems a universally human practice, whether “naturally” through exercise and pushing one’s physical limits, through chant, prayer, meditation, dance, song, music, or through “assisted alteration” with certain herbs, drugs, alcohol.  Even into adulthood much of this knowledge rumbles and whispers just below the level of conscious thought much of the time.  Without socially-approved times and places to discuss many of these experiences, we withhold them from daily conversation, we “fit in” and accommodate, we commit to being just like everyone around us, and the nudge of what feels like difference becomes part of the background hum of living, an itch we scratch haphazardly, or learn to tune out.

We forget how valuable this kind of knowing is, how it persists throughout our lives.  This used to be wisdom of a kind we valued precisely because it took lived experience to acquire.   You couldn’t rush it, couldn’t buy it or fake it, at least not without so much practice you almost recreated for yourself the original source experience anyway.

In a previous post on this blog, I noted:

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” – you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.

Back to the poem I mentioned in the first line of this post.  Reading it can be, in a small way, a re-initiation back into some experiences and kinds of knowing we may have forgotten or waylaid.  It’s “just words,” but also — potentially — more.

The Forge
by Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

forgeHere’s one opportunity of our human life (there are others) — a door into darkness, a world inside us that is a forge, a place of shaping and molding, of hammering material into a desired form, a place of work and energy and transformation.  The door leads to a place where we can find an altar, where we can “expend ourselves in shape and music” and “beat real iron out.”  Sometimes it appears others stand there before us; at times, we stand alone, tools scattered about, not always sure of how to proceed, dimly aware, or not at all, of anything like an altar or metal or tools.  But here lies a chance at the magnum opus, the “great work” many of us seek, that task finally worthy of all that we are and can do and dream of, a labor that is pleasure and work and art, all at once or at different times.

Even to know this in some small way, to imagine it or suspect it, is a start.  The door into the dark may not stand open, but we discern the outlines of something like a door, and maybe grope towards a handle, a yielding to an inner call, something that answers to a hand on the doorknob, or shifts like a latch, clicks open.  To know this much is a priceless beginning.

How magic can build on this beginning, and assist in self-making, will be the subject of the next post.

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Images: Seamus Heaney; child at shore; forge.

Updated 3 July 2014

The Fires of May, Green Dragons, and Talking Peas   2 comments

Ah, Fifth Month, you’ve arrived.  In addition to providing striking images like this one, the May holiday of Beltane on or around May 1st is one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic world and of revival Paganism. Along with Imbolc, Lunasa and Samhain, Beltane endures in many guises. The Beltane Fire Society of Edinburgh, Scotland has made its annual celebration a significant cultural event, with hundreds of participants and upwards of 10,000 spectators. Many communities celebrate May Day and its traditions like the Maypole and dancing (Morris Dancing in the U.K.). More generally, cultures worldwide have put the burgeoning of life in May  — November if you live Down Under — into ritual form.

I’m partial to the month for several reasons, not least because my mother, brother and I were all born in May.  It stands far enough away from other months with major holidays observed in North America to keep its own identity.  No Thanksgiving-Christmas slalom to blunt the onset of winter with cheer and feasting and family gatherings.  May greens and blossoms and flourishes happily on its own.  It embraces college graduations and weddings (though it can’t compete with June for the latter).  It’s finally safe here in VT to plant a garden in another week or two, with the last frosts retreating until September.  At the school where I teach, students manage to keep Beltaine events alive even if they pass on other Revival or Pagan holidays.

The day’s associations with fertility appear in Arthurian lore with stories of Queen Guinevere’s riding out on May Day, or going a-Maying.  In Collier’s painting above, the landscape hasn’t yet burst into full green, but the figures nearest Guinevere wear green, particularly the monk-like one at her bridle, who leads her horse.  Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot eroticized everything around her — greened it in every sense of the word.  Tennyson in his Idylls of the King says:

For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might …

Of course, there are other far more subtle and insightful readings of the story, ones which have mythic power in illuminating perennial human challenges of relationship and energy. But what is it about green that runs so deep in European culture as an ambivalent color in its representation of force? 

Anya Seton’s novel Green Darkness captures in its  blend of Gothic secrecy, sexual obsession, reincarnation and the struggle toward psychic rebalancing the full spectrum of mixed-ness of green in both title and story. As well as the positive color of growth and life, it shows its alternate face in the greenness of envy, the eco-threat of “greenhouse effect,” the supernatural (and original) “green giant” in the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the novel and subsequent 1973 film Soylent Green, and the ghostly, sometimes greenish, light of decay hovering over swamps and graveyards that has occasioned numerous world-wide ghost stories, legends and folk-explanations. 

(Wikipedia blandly scientificizes the phenomenon thus:  “The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires.”)  And most recently, “bad” greenness showed up during this year’s Earth Day last month, which apparently provoked fears in some quarters of the day as evil and Pagan, and a determination to fight the “Green Dragon” of the environmental movement as un-Christian and insidious and horrible and generally wicked. Never mind that stewardship of the earth, the impetus behind Earth Day, is a specifically Biblical imperative (the Sierra Club publishes a good resource illustrating this).  Ah, May.  Ah, silliness and wisdom and human-ness.

We could let a Celt and a poet have (almost) the last word. Dylan Thomas catches the ambivalence in his poem whose title is also the first line:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind

Hauls my shroud sail …

Yes, May is death and life both, as all seasons are.  But something in the irrepressible-ness of May makes it particularly a “hinge month” in our year.  The “green fuse” in us burns because it must in order for us to live at all, but our burning is our dying.  OK, Dylan, we get it.  Circle of life and all that.  What the fearful seem to react to in May and Earth Day and things Pagan-seeming is the recognition that not everything is sweetness and light.  The natural world, in spite of efforts of Disney and Company to the contrary, devours as well as births.  Nature isn’t so much “red in tooth and claw” as it is green. 

Yes, things bleed when we feed (or if you’re vegetarian, they’ll spill chlorophyll.  Did you know peas apparently talk to each other?).  And this lovely, appalling planet we live on is part of the deal.  It’s what we do in the interim between the “green fuse” and the “dead end” that makes all the difference, the only difference there is to make.  So here’s Seamus Heaney, another Celt and poet,  who gives us one thing we can do about it:  struggle to make sense, regardless of whether or not any exists to start with.  In his poem “Digging,” he talks about writing, but it’s “about” our human striving in general that, for him, takes this particular form.  It’s a poem of memory and meaning-making.  We’re all digging as we go.

Digging

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

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

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

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Beltane Fire Society image; Maibaum; John Maler Collier’s Queen Guinevere’s Maying; Soylent Green; Green Darkness; peat.

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