‘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.