Posts Tagged ‘Seamus Heaney’

harvard yard autumn light leaves

Villanelle for an Anniversary

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the Yard,
The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

The maps dreamt on like moondust. Nothing stirred.
The future was a verb in hibernation.
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Before the classic style, before the clapboard,
All through the small hours of an origin,
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

Night passage of a migratory bird.
Wingflap. Gownflap. Like a homing pigeon
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Was that his soul (look) sped to its reward
By grace or works? A shooting star? An omen?
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

Begin again where frosts and tests were hard.
Find yourself or founder. Here, imagine
A spirit moves, John Harvard walks the yard,
The books stand open and the gates unbarred.

—Seamus Heaney

I’ve loved Seamus Heaney’s work since my undergrad days, when I discovered him in an Irish literature course. My favorite poems of his include “Song” and “Postscript,” which I’ve shared here before.

I did not know, when I came to work at Harvard, that Heaney also had a strong connection to this place. But he spent considerable time here, and he composed the poem above for the university’s 350th anniversary, in 1986.

After Heaney’s death in August 2013, a colleague clipped “Postscript” for me from his copy of the Financial Times. I still have it pinned on my bulletin board at work. A few weeks later, I heard President Faust quote the villanelle above at Memorial Church, during Morning Prayers. This spring, I heard her (again at Morning Prayers) quote from Heaney’s poem “The Cure at Troy.” (Clearly she’s a fellow fan.)

I love Heaney’s villanelle for its quiet, spare imagery; for the sense it evokes of Harvard’s history; for its bell-like rhythm, as clear as an autumn night in Cambridge. Most of all, I love the repeated line that captures what a university should be: a place where “the books stand open and the gates unbarred.”

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month.


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poetry books

Recently, Alyssa tweeted about having “a personal canon of poems” – a few lines or poems she depends upon to be “permanently in [her] head.” Of course, I immediately started thinking about my own essential poems – the ones that rise up to comfort me after a loss, or get me through a tough day.

I stumbled on most of them in college or thereabouts, studying them in classes or discovering them via friends. I’ve quoted some of them here during Poetry Fridays, but today I wanted to gather them up, like a bouquet of words, and share them all with you.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” I love Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words about “the dearest freshness deep down things.” In the face of deep and unrelenting darkness, the world is still heartbreakingly, powerfully lovely.

Since I came across it a few years ago, Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” has been saving my life, line by line. I read it aloud from the pulpit in church this summer, and it was as good as any biblical exhortation.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.”

And a few lines down: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” (This is hard but so necessary.)

I am a lifelong bookworm, and I love Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” because it pushes me to get out of my head and into the beautiful world around me. The last lines are my favorites: “Come forth and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives.”

Marie Howe’s poem “What the Living Do” stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it, on Sarah’s blog. I later read it aloud to a roomful of college freshmen one Sept. 11, as a way of paying tribute to those who died. The last lines still choke me up: “I am living. I remember you.”

I first encountered W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks” as the epigraph to Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. It speaks powerfully to the beauty and the difficulty of life, and the continued impetus to keep saying thank you.

Mark Strand’s poem “The Coming of Light,” discovered years ago in a rickety cabin at a camp tucked deep in the hills of northern New Mexico, always reminds me how magic lives in the everyday.

“My work is loving the world.” Mary Oliver’s “Messenger” reminds me of this again and again.

These poems have worked on me in different ways through the years. Sometimes they comfort me; sometimes they wake me up, through rhyme and rambling meter and startling images. But they all do what Seamus Heaney talks about in the last line of his wonderful poem “Postscript“: they “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

What poems have made it into your personal canon? I’d love to hear.

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Poem for May

May 2011 026


A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

—Seamus Heaney

I love everything about this poem – the lipsticked rowan tree, the musical imagery, and that bird whose song gets at the heart of the bewitching, delightful medley that is spring.


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April is National Poetry Month, so I’ll be sharing poetry on Fridays here this month (and more often if I can’t help myself).

First up: one of my favorite poems from Seamus Heaney, whose words I discovered in a college course on Irish literature.

inishmor aran islands


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.

That last line is a perfect evocation of what poetry should do. And this whole poem – its images, its Irishness, its use of simple words to convey a deep truth – is vintage Heaney.

(Photo from my trip to the Aran Islands in 2007, which caught my heart off guard and blew it open.)

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My father’s ploughing one, two, three, four sides
Of the lea ground where I sit all-seeing
At centre field, my back to the thorn tree
They never cut. The horses are all hoof
And burnished flank, I am all foreknowledge,
Of the poem as a ploughshare that turns time
Up and over. Of the chair in leaf
The fairy thorn is entering for the future.
Of being here for good in every sense.

-from ‘Poet’s Chair’ by Seamus Heaney

When I first read this poem I thought the last line meant “being here for good in every sense.” As in: I’m here to do good works, here for a good purpose, here to stay, et cetera. I didn’t realise until later that the emphasis belongs on two words, i.e., “being here for good in every sense.” I am here – in Abilene; at ACU; in all kinds of friendships and relationships; on this earth; alive in this universe – for good. In all kinds of senses. There is so much potential for truth and beauty that stems from my own small life…all because of my wise and wonderful Creator who has put me here. Isn’t that amazing?

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,” Galadriel tells Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring. Later, in The Return of the King when Eomer scoffs at Merry, Eowyn flashes, “You should not doubt him” – speaking for herself as well as the little hobbit.

I am neither a hobbit nor a Rohan woman going into battle, but I am a daughter of the King – a shield-maiden and beloved of the Most High. I am here, for good, in every sense. And with that in mind, I can only look up and say “Thank You.”

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