Fare Thee Well, Professor Hill

Yesterday evening Geoffrey Hill delivered his final lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry. If the reports coming in on social media are anything to go by it was a characteristically vital, vexing and invigorating critical event. Indeed, his praise for Christopher Ricks (his predecessor in office) could now just as well be applied to himself: ‘He combines the resources gained from a formidable breadth of reading, a process begun in early youth, with a wonderful delicacy of ear, and an exquisite, at times deadly, accuracy of phrase.’ I was lucky enough to be in attendance at his lecture of November 2011 after which I wasted no time in disseminating handouts of choice quotations to my students. Since that time I have been so grateful to have the podcasts of so many of the lectures to download and listen to as I go about daily life: the delight has been endless. My baby son was captivated by Hill’s rendition of the folk song ‘Fare Thee Well’ (as part of his lecture of 10 March 2015) and every one of Hill’s riveting performances as Oxford Professor has been charged with statements that have made me want to rise to my feet and applaud. He has stretched us all and has, through his own exacting readings and ruminations, given us all so much to think about, so much to read, re-read and reflect on. My review of his Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952 – 2012 is due to appear in Poetry Ireland Review this month, but I couldn’t let the occasion of his final appearance as Professor pass without putting together a compilation of some of my most-cherished pronouncements from his time on the podium. The following are from his inaugural lecture ‘How ill white hairs become a fool and jester’ delivered on 30 November 2010:

‘Do poets approach language as the neutral instrument for confessional themes – on occasion, themes of perjury – or do they, in the very act of writing, manifestly reveal language itself, particularly language twisted into poetic shapes, as a substance of imagination radically perjured?’


‘”Since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it.” I love that so much I’ll read it again: “Since our erected wit makes us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it.” It seems to me one of the crucial literary-theological statements of that period of the sixteenth century. Certain of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including all of those from which I have quoted, strike us both as the demonstration of “infected will” – which uses the particular vehicle of “erected wit”, that is to say, the sonnet structure – and it is also the indissoluble union of the one with the other. It is the marriage of true minds; in the sense that topos must be of one being with technique. Thought is to be made manifest in structure.’


‘I am a traumatised old man, and my opinions on the matter of poetry in English, particularly contemporary poetry, are decidedly peculiar. I do not have any great desire to encourage the presence of contemporary writing in the university because I believe that contemporary poetry already receives far more encouragement than is good for it.’


‘Blackmur wrote in 1935, and I regard it as one of the great modern, or Modernist, formulations of what poetry is:

‘”The art of poetry”, he says, “is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence of a fresh idiom. Language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand, but adds to the stock of available reality.”

My God, if only I could have written that!’

‘If I were to offer anything to the conventional young poet (apart from the proverbial revolver and a bottle of brandy) I would say: Don’t try to be sincere, don’t try to express your inmost feelings, but do try to be inventive.’

‘The craft of poetry is not a spillage but an in-gathering; relevance and accessibility strike me as words of very slight value. I have written elsewhere that accessibility is a perfectly good word if the matter under discussion concerns supermarket aisles, library stacks or public lavatories, but has no proper place in discussion of poetry or poetics. Poetry of the new millennium is as it is because of what English poetry has been during preceding centuries and a degree of humility when faced with that fact would not come amiss from our latest celebrities.’

‘What is needed from a contemporary critical mind that has both depth and reach of a capacity that few have at any given time but which Ricks has demonstrated super-abundantly, is an analysis of how the skim of contemporary culture relates to, is inextricably part of, the gigantic scam of our times: the bankers’ scam, the Blair-Brown scam, the coalition scam, the big society scam, the education scam, the national happiness scam.

“And gilded honour shamefully misplaced.”‘


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A Poem for Ireland: Heaney’s ‘Clearances, III’

‘Memory is, has been, essential to me. […] Everybody in their life has those moments when something memorable occurs that you remember forever – orphaned in a little patch of light – and it has significance and you don’t quite know what it’s all about.’

         — Seamus Heaney, Interview with Peter Sirr, Franco-Irish Literary Festival, 2012

I haven’t written about Seamus Heaney since he left the world in 2013 and poetry bereft. Recently, my involvement in RTÉ’s A Poem for Ireland project has prompted me to reflect on and rethink my own relationship with his poetry, which, as with all love affairs, hasn’t been straightforward. For years, as a school student, I found Heaney off-putting: his poetry, as it was sold to us in school at Junior Certificate level, seemed too simplistic, too much at home in an Irish rural experience that had little to do with me. Indeed, the poet Alan Gillis has recalled his own first encounters in a way that chimes with my own:

Maybe it comes down to how they are taught at school but I had a very negative view of Northern Irish poetry. I had that GCSE perception of Heaney that it was all about fields and frog spawn and “Norn Iron”.

But then one day in school ‘Clearances, III’ was put in front of us and I isolated that most isolating of phrases ‘cold comforts’ and found a way in. Of course the poem wasn’t presented as ‘Clearances, III’ – the third in a sequence of eight sonnets titled ‘Clearances, in memoriam M.K.H., 1911 – 1984’ in Heaney’s 1987 collection The Haw Lantern – it was presented as ‘When All the Others Were Away at Mass’. Mass with a capital ‘M’, no less. Even so I clung to those ‘cold comforts’, sensing that there was something I was not getting, something slippery that was eluding my grasp.

So, what changed? At university, studying English and Music, I began to listen closely, to ‘lie with an ear to the line’, as he wrote in his other great sonnet sequence, ‘Glanmore Sonnets’, and with that I read more attentively and more variously and became aware of the deeper complexities at work in this most multivalent and ambivalent poetry. Duplicity is everywhere in Heaney and not just in the dark recesses of the work itself but in the figure of the poet as a split self. As Heaney described his own double life in the course of the Out of the Marvellous documentary: ‘I dwell in this house and in the cities and Heaney lives in the country and in his memory and elsewhere.’

On one level then the poem can be read as an elegy for Heaney’s mother, Margaret, a woman who lived in a certain time and place and who was circumscribed by the predetermined certainties of that time and place. As Heaney described her circumstances to Dennis O’Driscoll:

There she was, doomed to biology, a regime without birth-control, nothing but parturition and potato-peeling in saecula saeculorum, and the way she faced it, and in the end out-faced it, was by prayer. […] She went with the fiction of it […] It was defiance as much as devotion.

Poetry being the supreme fiction, ‘Clearances, III’ commemorates Margaret Heaney by rehearsing a shared moment between mother and son that not only takes place as she lies on her death-bed but replaces the usual prayers for the dying. Throughout his career Heaney was too often described as the poet who would do ‘the decent, expected thing’ but this deceptive, twisted little poem may be read, refreshingly, as being about doing the unexpected thing. For me, Heaney has always been a poet of transgression. From the outset the poet and his mother are captured eschewing the expected Sunday morning ritual. Latterly, instead of responding or crying along with the rest, the poet opts for a third way: to create his own counter-prayer-for-the-dying through poetry. The poet at the bedside not only occupies a different zone of consciousness – there in body not in mind – but mentally constructs a completely different room elsewhere: that is, the light-filled memory space of the sonnet itself.

A time capsule with its own laws of space and time – fourteen lines in width and duration – the sonnet is a place apart. Heaney employs the sonnet form because as a ‘strict’ form that adheres to a predetermined scheme or architectural plan its blueprint, its thresholds are there to be transgressed. It creates its own room, its own time zone, capacious enough, in which to rethink, remember and recreate. ‘A poem needs breathing space inside it too’, Heaney once remarked, and this sonnet achieves that through its design, achieving both airiness and earthiness at once, as memory and music lead eye and ear across the breaks in time and space. Interestingly, on the theme of unexpectedness, Heaney’s sonnet does not follow any of the usual, traditional patterns of full end-rhyme at the end of the lines. Instead, the slant, interior music is manipulated through echoic devices of repetition, internal rhyme, alliterative effects and falling cadences (listen out for silence; solder; weeping; soldering; gleaming; splashes; senses):

They broke the silence, let fall one by one

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

Cold comforts set between us, things to share

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

The plaintive repetition of ‘let fall one by one….and again let fall’ is mimetic of the downward pull of grief while the hard ‘k’ sounds of ‘cold ‘,’comfort’, ‘clean’ and within ‘broke’, ‘bucket’ and ‘work’ pull us up sharply. This is the music of reality; where harmony breaks out of and back into dissonance, resolution fights its way out of suspension and shades of light and dark perform in endless shifting play. Heaney once remarked that everyone invents their own childhood. In the reality as remembered it is not words but the music of work – the dirty, unglamorous, even tedious activity of potato-peeling – that breaks the silence. In the reality of this multi-layered poem it is words that break the silence as they move and call out to each other across the line-breaks of the poem never forgetting the fact of the  silence that surrounds them on all sides. This is the forge, the crucible of poetry. What is being enacted so subtly but so ringingly is the work of grief, of shaping memory, music and language into a work of art that lives beyond what is being memorialised. The reciprocity is neat; the mother gave her son not only life but language and he now uses the life of language to release her into an eternity that only art can bestow. But she is more than merely mother. ‘Her breath in mine’: the mother is inspiration itself (inspire means to ‘breathe upon’) and a skilled practitioner of her risky craft – after all, just one moment’s slip of those ‘dipping knives’ would result in injury. This is work that, like the work of poetry itself, requires concentration, dexterity, and an assured sense of rhythm, of hand and eye moving in consort. Indeed the epigraph to the sonnet sequence has the poet-as-son implore his mother-as-guide: ‘Teach me now to listen, / To strike it rich behind the linear black’, this poem of lineage concerns most of all poetry and the poetic line itself, as Meg Tyler has observed, the poet must learn the ‘lesson of precision, listening for the line break, making ready to “split” it when you get the “grain and hammer angled right”.’

On the visual level, one notices how the sonnet is sundered in two: the gaping white space between lines 8 and 9 intensifies and amplifies the break in consciousness, in time and in space; the white space of the poem becomes the cosmic void. Words are not consolation, far from it. There is nothing straightforward about the relationship here between mother and son. It is, as we know, words that come between them – ‘cold comforts set between us’  as well as ‘things to share’ – keeping them both ‘allied and at bay’ as the next sonnet in the sequence puts it. ‘Part of the greatness of “Clearances” is its double-edge’, Conor O’Callaghan recently observed in an essay for Poetry Ireland Review and he is dead right. Those double-edged ‘fluent dipping knives’ – prominently positioned in the poem to rhyme darkly with ‘lives’ in the sonnet’s final couplet – are themselves edgy, out on the edge. When we we pause to consider the meanings of that word ‘clearance’ we uncover the very ambiguous heart of the poem. Before this the poem had all but refused the again expected consolatory gesture of end-rhyme until the priest comes in with his well-worn template:

Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying

And some were responding and some crying

Such vigorous, unimaginative recitation falls on deaf ears. For Margaret Heaney the afterlife in her son’s poetry is more than enough. Through the labour of poetic revelation he makes her luminous, imperishable, a keeper of silence and reminder of the hard work of poetry.

Memory in Heaney must always be understood as, not just that of the life lived, but of the reading life, a life of memorising poems that become lifelines or, in his phrase, ‘sounding lines’. In his introduction to the anthology Lifelines Heaney upheld the fundamental importance of poetic memorisation:

Poems learned early on, poems with a truly imaginative quality, end up being sounding lines, out to the world and into yourself.

Very deliberately, very shrewdly, employing the sonnet form, Heaney is in conversation with the whole tradition of literature from Petrarch ,Wyatt, Shakespeare to Milton, Keats, Wordsworth, and onwards into the twentieth century which would remake the form once more. As Stephen Burt has said, the sonnet always carries with it a ‘sense of history’:

Because we recognize the sonnet as a form from the past, a form with its own past, a poet who adopts it says that she cannot begin anew, that she acknowledges some sort of past in her poem. Contemporary sonnets […] work against modern hopes that an artist, or a family, or a society, can leave the past entirely behind. The form thus lets some poets acknowledge historical guilt; it lets others point out the distance between their own backgrounds, their own brands of English, and the white, privileged, European or male backgrounds that the most famous earlier writers of sonnets had.

It is thereby a sonnet about poetry that both follows and breaks from poetic lineage and familial tradition. Who can read the by-line ‘in memoriam M.K.H.’ without thinking of Tennyson’s endlessly sounding elegy for Arthur Hallam ‘In Memoriam, A.H.H.’? Who among the readers of contemporary poetry can encounter ‘solder weeping off the soldering iron’ without thinking of Heaney’s description of Geoffrey Hill, the poet whose Mercian Hymns stopped him in his tracks in the 1970s. ‘Words in his poetry fall slowly and singly, like molten solder’, Heaney wrote of Hill. Here there is a rich seam of intertextuality, of poetic genealogy, which Heaney as poet and son both mines and explodes. In all of this he looks back not only to his poetic forefathers but to his mother as the fragrant muse who both governs and releases his tongue.

Speaking about this poem on RTÉ’s The Works recently, Peter Fallon remarked that the ‘appeal’ and ‘majesty’ of this poem have to do with the fact that: ‘it wears the art very lightly. You don’t notice that it’s a sonnet and you’re not conscious of the literary history of sonnets beating down on you.’ I disagree. This poem has everything to do with the fact that it is a sonnet and, by extension, part of a sequence of sonnets. The form the poem takes – its shape on the air and on the page – is integral to its meaning.

There is far more to be said about this as a poem that takes its place within a sequence that has to do with illumination and obfuscation, silence and articulation, with the life that death makes possible and the repercussions of that word ‘clearance’. I have, for the present purposes, confined myself, as much as one can, to a close-reading of the poem as a stand-alone piece – Heaney himself performed it apart from the rest of the sequence on the Poet and the Piper collaboration with Liam O’Flynn. As a poem that lives and frets away at itself it breaks the silence between mother and son and is in eternal and uneasy conversation with the other poems in the sequence, with the rest of Heaney’s oeuvre, and with poetry itself.  One of the aspects of poetry that the A Poem for Ireland project can shed light on is the idea of how we read poetry, of how we find poems, or they find us, how they return us more forcefully to the words and worlds we inhabit, moving us to think and live in more than one place at once.


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A Poem for Ireland: Thinking Through ‘Dublin’

‘”A tourist in his own country” it has been said, with the implication that this is somehow discreditable; but of what sensitive person is the same not true?’  — Derek Mahon

‘The pubs in Dublin were even more assertive than usual this 16 June, Bloomsday. For me the pilgrimage began at Davy Byrne’s, which was Joyce’s favourite pub’. So wrote the great poet of metaphor and movement Louis MacNeice in an article for the New Statesman in 1962. Not himself a Dubliner – born in Belfast he regarded himself as a ‘Connaughtman born into exile’ and spent most of his life in England working for BBC Radio – the ever-in-transit MacNeice had nevertheless, as he declared, ‘always found the city a home from home’ and in this evocative love-letter his deep affection for the ‘old Dublin’ is keenly felt. With the shrewd, searching eye of a film director* he lights on the city’s innate ‘theatricality’,  rhapsodises about ‘the astonishing light and the air that caresses’ and, crucially for this poet of dialectical mindset, recognises with trademark insight the ‘paradoxes of the Dubliners themselves’: ‘They seem always to have the virtues of their vices and vice versa’. That word ‘paradox’ goes to the heart of MacNeice’s sense of Dublin and of himself. Dublin, as he concludes, ‘remains constant and constantly variable’.

When MacNeice in the autumn  of 1939 came to write ‘Dublin’, he was in Ireland (moving between Dublin and Antrim) and working on his seminal study of W.B. Yeats’s poetry as the world stood on the brink of war. Having been to the USA earlier that year he was focused on getting back across the Atlantic and to his lover the American travel writer Eleanor Clark who was, as it happened, one of the poem’s first readers, MacNeice having sent it to her in a letter sent from Dublin to New York in September 1939. Part of a larger sequence that was initially titled ‘The Coming of War’ (published in The Last Ditch, 1940), then edited and re-titled ‘The Closing Album’, ‘Dublin’ unfolds in time as a haunted and haunting evocation in which the complexities, contradictions and paradoxes of the city and its history become enlivening forces for the process of the poetic act itself at a time of profound pressure. ‘You give me time for thought / And by a juggler’s trick / You poise the toppling hour’, he addresses Dublin as wayward, deceptive muse. In this way both city and poem become vital spaces for creative performance and restless enquiry at a time when MacNeice’s own conflicted mind is preoccupied with thoughts of personal and public crisis.

MacNeice has long been recognised as one of the master poets of the eternal and the everyday, the physical and metaphysical, and in ‘Dublin’ we are shocked into recognising both the stone-clad physicality of the city’s architecture (‘Grey brick upon brick, / Declamatory bronze /On sombre pedestals – ’) and the more intangible, ungraspable aspects of its composition: ‘And the air soft on the cheek […] The lights jig in the river / With a concertina movement’. Casting a by turns cold and captivated eye on Dublin in all of its multi-storied grittiness and grandeur – ‘Her Georgian facades…the glamour of her squalor‘ – the poet composes and re-composes the city through the poem, fusing its warring, double-crossing elements into a work of music and metaphor that, like the city, turns and returns on itself.

And the past is all too fresh throughout in this city that is ‘historic with guns and vermin’ and not only through the figures of history that are invoked – O’Connell, Grattan, Moore, Nelson (still) on his pillar – but through the very rhythm that carries us along, as MacNeice reprises the pulsating, three-beat metre of Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’  – a poem that dramatises the act of poetry as an unending process of writing and of rewriting, remembering and dismembering. The lines of ‘Dublin’ are shadowed by Yeats’s equivocations and oxymorons most of all as the oppositions of life and death, stone and water, violence and vitality provide the sliding ground bass for the poet’s complex improvisation of sound, sense and image. We feel time pass as we walk the poem’s lines, follow its twists and turns, its lights and shadows, fleeting harmonies and clashing dissonances, as one moment tumbles into the next, one sound-image modulates into another and the scene shifts yet again.

‘Asked if he were an Irish poet or an English one, he would reply that he was simply “a poet”.’ — Derek Mahon

‘Not an English town’ and ‘not Irish’, it is little wonder that MacNeice (self-described as ‘an Irish man of Southern blood and Northern upbringing whose father was a Protestant bishop and a supporter of Home Rule’) always at a remove, found Dublin a ‘home from home’. ‘Fort of the Dane / Garrison of the Saxon’, as Edna Longley has remarked, the city’s ‘mongrel genealogy resembles the poet’s own.’ The poetic spirit, ever-conflicted, ever-in-process, finds itself precariously at home in a city that, despite its immovable statues, mythic histories and marmoreal facades, cannot ever be still, much like the larger Irish landscape itself, that was, as MacNeice wrote in his study of Yeats:

capable of pantomimic transformation scenes; one moment it will be desolate, dead, unrelieved monotone, the next it will be an indescribably shifting pattern of prismatic light.

As the poet Conor O’Callaghan has observed, MacNeice possessed ‘an imagination that thrived on out-of-placeness, on not belonging’. In his incorrigible plurality the poet complicates any fixed notion of ‘Irish’ identity and deepens and enlarges our own sense of city and country beyond superficial boundaries. Both Dublin (the historical, geographical place) and ‘Dublin’ (the poem) are living, breathing organisms brimming with tensions and energies, their forms fluid, their coordinates constantly changing. In many ways then, MacNeice – poet of Ireland, of England, but most persuasively of the world – should be regarded as the great poet of both place and out-of-placeness, of the modern mind in motion. For ultimately, the place of writing, as Seamus Heaney memorably put it, is essentially the stanza form, the poem itself.


* It is therefore no surprise that the poem works so well on film as in this recent tribute by Stephen James Smith:

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Poems as Lifelines    

‘There are no words when your baby dies’: reading this arresting piece on ‘Art from Bereavement’ in Monday’s Irish Times prompted me to revisit a moment from my own life that had me reflect on the way that art, more specifically poetry, can give form and voice to that ‘ever present absence’.

What do we do when words fail us and seem miserably inadequate? When I experienced what is termed a ‘silent miscarriage’ some time ago two particular poems – by, perhaps surprisingly, two male Irish poets – resonated and became lifelines for me in coming to terms with the slippery grief of miscarriage, which is, after all, grief over something that never existed. There is no body to hold, yet what is gone embodied all hope, possibility and had a presence in the world from the moment it was glimpsed on the ultrasound. In both Paul Muldoon’s ‘The Stoic’ (Moy Sand and Gravel, 2002) and Michael Longley’s ‘Miscarriage’ (An Exploded View, 1973) a stricken father labours to make sense of, and put shape on, this indefinable, indecipherable loss.

In Muldoon’s necessarily difficult, tangled poem we find the poet struggling to process the near-unspeakable fact of his wife’s miscarriage as he stands, far from home, under Missouri’s Gateway Arch. Bewildered, he grasps for comparisons, padding the poem with images of disconnection from Irish and American history and mythology.

When I teach Muldoon’s poem in classes on poetic elegy I often play a recording of him reading it from the BBC website. Owing to poor sound quality Muldoon’s reading of his ‘lament for a child who died in utero‘ sounds as faint and as distant as that famous recording of Tennyson reading ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ from another century. To my ear now it remembers too the strain of listening out for the muffled heartbeat of the foetus on a hand-held Doppler – the same sound waves that create the image of the unborn child on the ultrasound, or sonogram (meaning ‘sound picture’) screen. Deeply aware of its own painstaking design ‘The Stoic’ is a poem that draws us to the end of the lines. The really attentive students will notice the arch end-rhyme pattern:

This was more like it, looking up to find a burlapped fawn

half-way across the iced-over canal, an Irish navvy who’d stood there for an age

with his long-tailed shovel or broad griffawn,

whichever foot he dug with showing the bandage

Such circling around his own sorrow makes it all the more powerful when, finally, we stumble into the real heart of the poem: ‘at the thought of our child already lost from view / before it had quite come into range, / I steadied myself under the Gateway Arch’. The poem becomes the ‘arch’ itself, its load-bearing lines holding up the weight of staggering emotion.

Composed of just four unrhymed couplets, Longley’s poem (read it here in its workshop version on the Emory University website) is a sparer articulation, as befits its stark subject. Addressing the miscarried foetus – ‘Unembraceable, indisposable, / My son or my daughter’ – the poem aches to ’embrace’, to put formal substance on, something that is formless, unnameable, that has, inexplicably, slipped off the radar into an unfathomable emptiness: ‘A stunned cabin boy / Steering your ship to the bottom’. It is a haunting, unforgettable image.

All of this reminds me of Angela Leighton’s definition of elegy as a genre that ‘conceives its poetic form as the relief somehow, the shaped remains, of something that has gone’. Both poems are proof that, as the poet Wallace Stevens said, poetry ‘helps us to live our lives’. Never offering the easy consolation of cliché or reducing us to less than we are, poetry enlarges us, moving us to think and feel beyond ourselves. When ordinary words fall flattened of meaning the searching forms of poetry steady us, find the words for us, break into, and bear, the silence.

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A Poem for Ireland

I am currently involved in RTÉ’s ‘Poem for Ireland’ campaign – the main aim of which is to ‘ignite a national conversation about poetry’ – and will be writing thoughts on it as it progresses here….

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