Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The answer is blowin' in the wind

I can still remember the day when I learnt what 0 was. I was probably 5 years old in a maths lesson and greatly distressed at seeing this 0 symbol and not knowing what it was or what it stood for. A teacher explained that 0 was nothing. Zero. This was almost too philosophical a mind-bending statement to get my 5 year old head around, 'How can 0 be nothing, when it's a something? If it is nothing then why not put nothing?' I accepted the concept none-the-less but it has stayed with me as one of those profound moments of learning without really knowing the impact and importance of what it is you've just learnt and one that stays with you throughout your life. What, exactly has this all got to do with a post about Seamus Heaney is not all too obvious at first but there's something anecdotal and vaguely profound that unities the two together.

In light of the sad passing away of the Irish poet, (like many people) I thought I'd dig up some of his poetry and have a read. I've been known to write the odd bit of poetry (usually very odd) from time to time yet despite this I wouldn't say I am a vast reader or even have a vast knowledge of poetry. In fact I had never heard of Seamus Heaney until about five years ago when his poems seemed to find me, blowing across a Tesco car park which I happened to be walking across on my way into town. I don't make a habit of picking up all the stuff I see blowing around car parks but don't like to see books getting abused and upon realising this green thing flapping about was a book I picked it up to rescue it. 'Who is this Sea-mus Heaney?' I thought, reading the cover. Pronouncing Seamus as 'Sea' (as in the ocean) and 'mus' in my head. On further inspection, he's Irish (and then proper realisation of how his name is actually pronounced) and then 'Oh, there's a poem about digging and a pitchfork!'

Great! What a wonderful discovery. Two fantastic poems that had a resonance with me and my work, plus the other poems were of interest too and all of this found, completely at random in a windy car park in Taunton.

"This is how I should discover all my poets." I thought. "There's a Ted Hughes stuck in a tree, a Yeats caught in the brambles alongside the river." The book itself  is one of those free supplements occasionally inserted in newspapers and for whatever reason someone had either a) lost it on the way to the car or b) chosen, in an act of disgust, to discard their copy of Seamus Heaney's poems. Most likely not the latter. Perhaps there were dozens of other discarded poets wafting around the car park, liberated from their newspapers and free to do what all good poetry in metaphor should do, glide seamlessly and effortlessly on the wind.

So there you have it. Like learning the value of nought, I didn't really notice the significance of how I discovered Seamus Heaney at the time but in retrospect it's one of those relatively uneventful but meaningful stories that sticks in memory and are in a very small way probably the sorts of memories that help define who you are, what you value as important and mean a great deal more than nought.

My copy of Seamus Heaney's poetry

THE PITCHFORK -Seamus Heaney

Of all implements, the pitchfork was the one
That came near to an imagined perfection:
When he tightened his raised hand and aimed with it,
It felt like a javelin, accurate and light.

So whether he played the warrior or the athlete
Or worked in earnest in the chaff and sweat,
He loved its grain of tapering, dark-flecked ash
Grown satiny from its own natural polish.

Riveted steel, turned timber, burnish, grain,
Smoothness, straightness, roundness, length and sheen.
Sweat-cured, sharpened, balanced, tested, fitted.
The springiness, the clip and dart of it.

And then when he thought of probes that reached the
He would see the shaft of a pitchfork sailing past
Evenly, imperturbably through space,
Its prongs starlit and absolutely soundless --

But has learned at last to follow that simple lead
Past its own aim, out to an other side
Where perfection - or nearness to it - is imagined
Not in the aiming but the opening hand.

My grandparents' shovel on the farm down the lane from where I grew up.

DIGGING -Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests
I'll dig with it

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