Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out, A New Song



In heading out for Ireland, I decided to put down the poetry I was reading at the time and pick up a book of Poems by Seamus Heaney. I sort of arbitrarily picked out his book of poems titled Wintering Out. This book of poems is written in two parts, the first of which I finished today.

I have noticed a few things about Heaney. He is an earthy poet. Most of his poems bring the reader back down to earth, whether that be bringing the reader to the earth itself (as in soil) or bringing the reader down to the railroad laborer or the farmer. And his language tends toward farm-related and rural – since he grew up in Northern Ireland in small to midsized towns and villages – where farmland could be found easily. Second, I have noticed that his poems are confusingly, but delightfully subtle. Whereas a poet like Christian Wiman packs a punch of brutal Christian honesty, Heaney conceals and slightly reveals the truth he wishes to speak.

Upon finishing the first part of Wintering Out, I will quote one of my favorite poems so far.


I met a girl from Derrygarve

And the name, a lost potent musk,

Recalled the river’s long swerve,

A kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk

And stepping stones like black molars

Sunk in the ford, the shifty galze

Of the whirlpool, the Moyola

Pleasuring beneath the alder trees.

And Derrygarve, I thought, was just,

Vanished music, twilit water,

A smooth libation of the past

Poured by this chance vestal daughter.

But now our river tongues must rise

From licking deep in native haunts

To flood, with vowelling embrace,

Demesnes staked out in consonants.

And Castledawson we’ll enlist

And Upperlands, each planted bawn —

Like bleaching-greens resumed by grass —

A vocable, as rath and bullaun.

My notes: [1] Derrygarve: a town in Co. (London)Derry, Norther Ireland, [2] vestal: referring to Vesta, the virgin goddes of the hearth, home, and family, [3] haunts: frequently visited places, [4] Demesnes: pieces of land attached to manors and retained by the owners for their own uses, [5] Castledawson: a village in Co. (London)Derry, Northern Ireland, [6] Upperlands: a village in Co. (London)Derry, Northern Ireland, [7] rath: a strong circular earthen wall forming an enclosure and serving as a fort and residence for a tribal chief, [8] bullaun: stones with bowls formed by water in them; believed to have magical/mystical/spiritual powers

Ireland and Scotland

My study abroad program is over. I am no longer in Ireland. After the four weeks in Maynooth, I took a short plan to Edinburgh, Scotland, where I have been for three and a half days. I have explored Edinburgh, gone to church at St. Columba’s Free Church, toured Glenkinchie Distillery, climbed around Arthur’s Seat, and hopped around from coffee shop to coffee shop. My favorite coffee shops abroad have been these: 3FE in Dublin, Coffeewerk + Press in Galway, and Fortitude in Edinburgh.

While in Ireland, I have been to Maynooth, Dublin, a Farm in Co. Meath, Bray, Castledermot, Glendalough, Galway, Connemara, and the Cliffs of Moher. In Scotland, I have stayed and will stay in Edinburgh. While here I have read James Joyce (Portrait), Seamus Heaney (Wintering Out), and W.B. Yeats (selected poems). I have also worked on 8 poems, and possibly 9. I have tried different coffee shops, beer, gin, Irish and Scotch Whiskies, and food.

My favorite Coffee Shops (as above): (1) 3FE in Dublin, Ireland, (2) Coffeewerk + Press in Galway, Ireland, and (3) Fortitude in Edinburgh, Scotland.

My favorite Gins: (1) Monkey 47, (2) Brockman’s, (3) Listoke.

My favorite Irish Whiskeys: (1) Redbreast 21 year, (2) Redbreast 15 year, (3) Tyrconnel 10 year Sherry Cask.

My favorite Scotch Whiskeys: (1) Dalwhinnie Double/Oloroso Cask, (2) Glenkinchie 12 year, (3) Lagavulin 16 year.


glendalough wicklow hills

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

river liffey 1

River Liffey, Co. Dublin

landscape from friary

Landscape from a friary, Co. Kildare

This is my first blog post in a while. I am posting for a few related reasons.

I am not in the States currently. I am in Ireland, staying half an hour outside of Dublin in Maynooth in Co. Kildare. I am studying Modern Irish Literature and Creative Writing here at Maynooth University. While working on poetry and photography for my Senior Thesis in this creative writing class, I am also reading a lot of Irish literature both for my other class and pleasure:

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • Wintering Out by Seamus Heaney
  • Select Poems of William Butler Yeats

I just finished reading Portrait and I will be writing my final paper on the novel. For that paper I will also possibly be using these secondary sources:

  • James Joyce’s non-fiction works
  • Selected essays on James Joyce
  • Dubliners by James Joyce
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill
  • The Book of Kells ed. by Bernard Meehan

I have loved my time in Ireland. I have been here for almost half my time. I miss my friends and family, but I am also growing more accustomed to being here. I am learning to love the green but overcast country. I have explored Maynooth and Dublin; I have visited a farm in Co. Meath, Glendalough and Bray in Co. Wicklow, and various monestaries/friaries in Co. Kildare; and I will see Galway and the cliffs of Moher, the city of Cork, and possibly Kilkenny.  I will conclude my trip by flying over to Edinburgh, Scotland after my studying has commenced.

Now, I will just share some scattered thoughts about James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This novel, originally called Stephen Hero, narrates the life of Stephen Dedalus from his young childhood to his young manhood. Stephen Dedalus has two important namesakes:

  • Stephen – St. Stephen who was the first martyr of the Christian Church
  • Dedalus – Daedalus, who created the Minotaur’s labyrinth, and whose son, Icarus, died using the wings he fashioned – flying too close to the sun

The novel is a coming of age story, a bildungsroman. It shows the growing up of an artist, of Stephen Dedalus, a pretty near autobiographical James Joyce.

The most interesting aspect of this novel, the likely topic of my final paper, is the language of the novel itself. It evolves more drastically than in any other book I have read. There are five chapters in this novel. The reader moves from Stephen’s father telling him a quaint children’s story –

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through the glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platte.

(p. 1)

– to Stephen developing his own aesthetic philosophy –

— “We are right”– [Stephen] said — “and the others are wrong. To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try and slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of beauty we have come to understand – that is art. — ”

(p. 232)

The third person narrator’s voice and diction changes alongside Stephen’s metamorphosis. I am interested in seeing the evolution in Stephen himself, the character, while studying the change in the very language of the outside narrator.

I will have more to say later.

Christian Wiman, Once in the West, More Like the Stars, Something in Us Suffering Touches


Stars (The Inferno, Canto 34) by Gustave Dore

I have no concluded my reading of Christian Wiman’s book of poems entitled Once in the West. I have given a peer into this book of poetry by selecting one poem from each part. I would like to present a poem from the last part, “More Like the Stars.” I treasured each of the four poems in the last section, so it is hard for me to pick. But since it is the final poem of the book, I would like to show “Something in Us Suffering Touches.” This poem has a unique and specific shape, so I will not try to render it here. Instead I will post a link to it on Poetry Foundation. This is actually a link to all four poems of “More Like the Stars.” “Something in Us Suffering Touches” is the final poem of those four. However, I recommend reading all four.

Christian Wiman, Once in the West, My Stop is Grand, The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians

I have now finished the second of three parts of Christian Wiman’s book of poetry, Once in the West, published in 2014. I want to now preview these poems by choosing my favorite in this second part (entitled “My Stop is Grand”).
The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians
I tell you it’s a bitch existence some Sundays
and it’s no good pretending you don’t have to pretend,
don’t have to hitch up those gluefutured nags Hope and Help
and whip the sorry chariot of yourself
toward whatever hell your heaven is on days like these.
I tell you it takes some hunger heaven itself won’t slake
to be so twitchingly intent on the pretty organist’s pedaling,
so lizardly alert to the curvelessness of her choir robe.
Here it comes brothers and sisters, the confessions of sins,
hominy hominy, dipstick doxology, one more churchcurdled hymn
we don’t so much sing as haunt: grounded altos, gear-grinding tenors,
two score and ten gently bewildered men lip-synching along.
Your’e up, Pastor. Bring on the unthunder. Some trickle-piss tangent
to reality. Some bit of the Gospel grueling out of you.
I tell you sometimes mercy means nothing
but release from this homiletic hologram, a little fleshstep
sideways, as it were, setting passion on autopilot (as if it weren’t!)
to gaze out in peace at your peaceless parishioners:
boozeglazes and facelifts, bad mortgages, bored marriages,
a masonry of faces at once specific and generic,
and here and there that rapt famished look that leaps
from person to person, year to year, like a holy flu.
All these little crevices into which you’ve crawled
like a chubby plumber with useless tools:
Here, have a verse for you wife’s death.
Here, have a death for your life’s curse.
I tell you some Sundays even the children’s sermon
– maybe especially this – sharks your gut
like a bit of tin some beer-guzzling goat
either drunkenly or mistakenly decides to sample.
I know what you’re thinking. Christ’s in this.
He’ll get to it, the old cunner, somewhere somehow
there’s the miracle meat, the aurora borealis blood,
every last atom compacted to a grave
and the one thing that every man must lose to save.
Well, friends, I’m here to tell you two things today.
First, though this is not, for me, one of those bilious abrading days,
though in fact I stand before you in a rage of faith
and have all good hope that you all go help
untold souls back into their bodies,
ease the annihilating No above which they float
the truth is our only savior is failure.
Which brings me to the second thing: that goat.
It was real. It is, as is usually the case, the displacement of agency
that is the lie. It was long ago, Mexico, my demon days:
It was a wager whose stakes I failed to appreciate.
He tottered. He flowered. He writhed time to a fraught quiet,
and kicked occasionally, and lay there twitching, watching me die.

Gilead, Part 6, Memory and Death

Part 6, Memory in Death

I do enjoy remembering that morning. I was sixty-seven, to be exact, which did not seem old to me. I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.

(Robinson, Gilead, p. 162)

This drew my mind to the closing paragraph of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey:

“Even now,” she thought, “almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while but forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

(Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, p. 192)

Gilead, Part 5, The Bread of Affliction

Part 5, The Bread of Affliction

John Ames recounts when his father gave him a piece of bread after a church had burned. John and his father (a pastor) were helping the members and leaders of this African American church after their church had burned down as a result of lightning. While taking a rest, John’s father gave him a peace of bread as a snack. Yet, John would remember that as an instance of communion.

It was so joyful and sad. I mention it again because it seem to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father’s hand. I remember it as communion, and I believe that’s what it was.

I can’t tell you what that day in the rain has meant to me. I can’t tell myself what it has meant to me. But I know how many things it put altogether beyond question, for me.

(p. 96)

This first line I quoted above reminds me of a line from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. This line arises when a man named Rakitin brings up a situation to Grushenka earlier in the novel. Alyosha, the main character was present in the original situation and in the conversation about it. Rakitin recalls how Grushenka shamed Katerina Ivanovna. Katerina Ivanovna had kissed Grushenka’s hand three times; but when Grushenka God down to kiss Katerina Ivanovna’s hand, she refused to do so. The situation is rather more complicated than as represented. But this is Grushenka’s response to Rakitin bringing up this shameful story:

“Know? [Dmitri] doesn’t know anything. If he found out, he’d kill me. But now I’m not afraid at all, I’m not afraid of his knife now. Shut up, Rakitin, don’t remind me of Dmitri Fyodorovich: he’s turned my heart to mush. And I don’t want to think about anything right now. But I can think about Alyoshechka [Alyosha], I’m looking at Alyoshechka…Smile at me, darling, cheer up, smile at my foolishness, at my joy… He smiled, he smiled! What a tender look! You know, Alyosha, I keep thinking you must be angry with me because of two days ago, because of the young lady. I was a bitch, that’s what… Only it’s still good that it happened that way. It was bad and it was good. […] No it’s good that it happened that way,” she smiled again. “But I’m still afraid you’re angry…”

(p. 350)

Sometimes we notice in reality this alloy of the good and bad, this amassed heap of indistinguishable content, in which exist the most terrible of things and the most beautiful.