Itinerant School Conjuror: Seamus Heaney

heaneySeeing Things begins with the classics: Aeneas imploring the Sibyl of Cumae to let him see his father in the underworld, and ends with a Dantean boat trip on the River Styx. In between is Seamus Heaney’s own story, a poetic, allusion rich journey both universal and extraordinarily intimate. His poetic inspirations, particularly Dante, pepper the collection, even as he writes with grounded language in a way that makes it almost believable that he is, as he describes himself, “a nine-to-five man who had seen poetry.”

But Heaney is every inch a well read writer, the kind of poet who effortlessly slips Norse mythology into a series of fishing poems so real they capture the ripple of water and sound of a spinning reel.

Every summer my youngest son and I go camping, and over those days in the woods drop a line in whatever river or lake is near. The next time we do, months from this wet October day, I will think back to Heaney and:

The effortlessness
of a spinning reel. One quick
flick of the wrist
and your minnow sped away

Whispering and silky
and nimbly laden.
It seemed to be all rise
and shine, the very opposite

of uphill going—it was pure
duration, and when it ended,
the pulse of the cast line
entering water

was smaller in your hand
than the remembered heartbeat
of a bird.”

Just reading that now, on an afternoon when the sturm und drang of the day has been anything but an effortless reel, transported me to the Wilson River and the sun of July, when my son and I were in pursuit of “little antic fish” like those in Seeing Things.

I’m not sure if Heaney has ever visited Tillamook County, but because of poems like “Casting and Gathering” and “Man and Boy” I’ve been transported to his Irish landscape. Good poetry has the ability to work magic that way.

Heaney plays magician throughout the book, weaving words that refocus his readers’ attention of everything from “A Basket of Chestnuts” to “The Schoolbag.”

My handsewn leather schoolbag. Forty years.
Poet, you were nel mezzo del cammin
When I shouldered it, half-full of blue-lined jotters,
And saw the classroom charts, the displayed bean,

The wallmap with its spray of shipping lanes
Describing arcs across the blue North Channel…
And in the middle of the road to school,
Ox-eye daisies and wild dandelions.

Learning’s easy carried! The bag is light,
Scuffed and supple and unemptiable
As an itinerant school conjuror’s hat.
So take it, for a word-hoard and a hansel,

As you step out trig and look back all at once
Like a child on his first morning leaving parents.”

In that sonnet, dedicated to Irish poet John Hewitt, whom Heaney refers to (in Dante’s Italian) as halfway through his life when Heaney was a student, takes a familiar object as its starting point, spinning into a paean to youth and learning and those complicated emotions familiar to educators from Belfast to Portland.

While our students might tuck other items into their backpacks as well, those “blue-lined jotters” and pile of books (that one can imagine including Inferno, The Aeneid, and Beowulf) —all part of the unemptiable “conjuror’s hat” of education— are familiar even here and even now.

In fact, for students at my school Heaney is a familiar name, best known as the translator of the volume of Beowulf they carry in their own schoolbags. He, through this work from his own nel mezzo del cammin, is a part of that same unemptiable legacy of learning.

And while the “Hazel stealth” and “Hedges hot as chimneys” he describes in the seemingly autobiographical poems that form the bulk of Seeing Things are specifically Heaney’s, they carry with them the possibility of resonance in the ears and minds of those of us reading him today.

We have all been that “child on his first morning leaving parents” and stepping into the schoolhouse, and it is a poet like Heaney who reminds us that as unique as that fear and anticipation was in our hearts, we are not alone.

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Maya Angelou’s Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well.

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