Seamus Heaney: Coming close again by holding back

Seamus Heaney

For two nights last month I was able to share two of my loves—poetry and teaching—with some parents in the Marin Academy community. As part of our Market Night fundraiser, parents could sign up for a salon-style discussion in the library about Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. Since Market Night was on St. Patrick’s Day this year, an Irish poet seemed very appropriate.

One of my favorite series is Clearances (originally published as part of The Haw Lantern), a collection of eight sonnets written in 1987 after the death of Heaney’s mother three years before. Rather than being grim, the poems reflect on his boyhood, his relationship with his mother, and the intimacy between them. I am thinking of Sonnet V when Heaney describes folding sheets from the clothesline:

The cool that came off the sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.

You can listen to Heaney reading the poem:

The study of poetry requires concentration, an understanding of form, and the ability to think critically about multiple meanings of a word in a single line or poem. Often students—whether they are teenagers or adults—see poetry as a mystery. What I love about Clearances is that it is easy to imagine the scene upon first reading, but the longer you spend with the words, the more you are drawn in and can dig deeper. The dynamic of coming together and coming apart is one that, in many ways, epitomizes the adolescent dynamic, and one that I thought might be familiar to the parents of high school students.

Photograph of Seamus Heaney by Paul Armiger (from The Telegraph)

In addition, because it is a sonnet, there is much that can be discussed about the form itself. A sonnet has 14 lines and the word itself is derived by the Italian word sonetto or little sound. Most people are familiar with the surviving sonnets of Shakespeare, but sonnets do not need to be written in iambic pentameter or even rhyme. Heaney is in good company: Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Federico Garcia Lora, E.E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke, and my favorite, Elizabeth Bishop, have all written in this form. Heaney creates his own version of the poetic type and uses it to create his own beautiful elegy. As is quoted in many recent biographies of Heaney, “When asked about his abiding interest in memorializing the people of his life, he replied, ‘The elegiac Heaney? There’s nothing else.’”

In a 2004 interview, Heaney said, “I can’t think of a case where poems changed, the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.” Words could not better describe my love of poetry and the teaching of poetry. I hope to continue discussing the form with both students and adults in our community—please let me know if you have any suggestions of poems, poets, or opportunities to come together.

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About Travis

Head of School, Marin Academy.
This entry was posted in arts, parenting and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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