Talking Craft With MrMary: Engaged Writing with Seamus Heaney

Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor. it is at once a buoyancy and a holding, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and centripetal in mind and body. And it is by such means that Yeat’s work does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitude and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.

Seamus Heaney, Crediting Poetry
The Nobel Lecture 1995


One of the nicest thing I have read about Seamus Since his passage was the message that Mr Heaney sent his wife by text moments before he died. His last words were “in a text message he wrote to my mother just minutes before he passed away, in his beloved Latin and they read: ‘Noli timere’ – ‘don’t be afraid.'”

I think that for centuries people have received solace from poetry and a way to give honor to their suffering and struggles. The American National Anthem started out as a poem by a Mr Francis Scott key What he saw in that night has been immortalized. His verse espoused the American ethos which was a necessary step to the foundation of the modern-day plutocratic democratic society I live in. Well for me, it expouses the American Ethos as seen through the quixotic lenses of recorded history that sweeps innocents kill under the  porous and ragged blanket of a fictitious security but that is neither here nor there.

What I would like to talk about is the human experience that encounters tragedy at the core of beauty and laughter in the face of nihilism. The continued existence of poetry throughout the millennia has reaffirmed for me the need for a pause amidst these mad moments of which life is replete. How many times I have gotten caught up in the rat-race only to feel the words  of Francois Villon, the medieval poet of France who happened to be a thief, and vagabond as well, in my mind. François Villon took his inspiration from the streets, taverns, and bordellos of Paris and wrote about love and sex, money trouble, bent cops, lewd monks, “the thieving rich,” and the consolations of good food and wine.

I die of thirst beside the fountain I’m hot as fire,
I’m shaking tooth on tooth
In my own country I’m in a distant land
Beside the blaze I’m shivering in flames
Naked as a worm, dressed like a president
I laugh in tears and hope in despair
I cheer up in sad hopelessness
I’m joyful and no pleasure’s anywhere
I’m powerful and lack all force and strength

Warmly welcomed, always turned away.
I’m sure of nothing but what is uncertain
Find nothing obscure but the obvious
Doubt nothing but the certainties
Knowledge to me is mere accident
I keep winning and remain the loser
At dawn I say “I bid you good night”
Lying down I’m afraid of falling
I’m so rich I haven’t a penny
I await an inheritance and am no one’s heir
Warmly welcomed, always turned away. 

Crediting Poetry

It has always been part of my understand that writing poetry carries with it the responsibility of showing the truth of the human experience as it is, not so much how it should be in some bowdlerized version of reality. Seamus Heaney talked much about the ills and violence that was so much a part of the story of Northern Ireland

Seamus+Heaney+sh3One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.

It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power. I remember, for example, shocking myself with a thought I had about that friend who was imprisoned in the seventies upon suspicion of having been involved with a political murder: I shocked myself by thinking that even if he were guilty, he might still perhaps be helping the future to be born, breaking the repressive forms and liberating new potential in the only way that worked, that is to say the violent way – which therefore became, by extension, the right way. It was like a moment of exposure to interstellar cold, a reminder of the scary element, both inner and outer, in which human beings must envisage and conduct their lives. But it was only a moment. The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.

Making Sense of Life


Good poetry endures because it is for me the mouth piece for the song of the human spirit. There is a certain meter and rhyme to human endeavours and affairs and poetry captures that. As Seamus is clear to express: “literature can’t change all of that. But it can – and this is in hindsight – use language to invent a truth that shows what happens in us and around us when values become derailed. Literature speaks with everyone individually – it is personal property that stays inside our heads. And nothing speaks to us as forcefully as a book, which expects nothing in return, other than that we think and feel.”

In my own writings I have always written with the hope of touching on something universal that we all can gravitate towards or sit around like those out in the wilderness do of a fire, not just for the warmth that it brings, but for the light  in the all encompassing dark, for hope. Here  are words of the maestro himself:

The Haw Lantern

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination.

But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;
so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

By Seamus Heaney
From “The Haw Lantern”, 1987

Yeah that’s It,

Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here

Also go check out the talented TJ Lubrano she gave me the idea for this series. She is a lovely person and talented artist and give great movie recommendations.


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