Dig with it

Heaney today. Hollander two weeks ago. The world of poetry has grown a bit smaller.

I had the good fortune to see Heaney just a few months ago, at the AWP conference in Boston. I missed his reading, regretfully, but I attended a conference session that was essentially a tribute to him. He was in the audience, and said a few words at the podium following the presentations, seemingly bemused by the effusive encomiums. I believe it is a peculiar ability of the Irish to appear grave and dignified and puckish and homespun all at once.

I remember my first encounter with his poetry, years (OK, decades) ago. It was through an anthology—I don’t remember whether it was specifically an anthology of Irish poetry or simply contemporary poetry in English. I must confess my ambivalence after reading the opening of “Digging,” which reads, “Between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests, snug as a gun.” Squat pen? Snug as a gun? How awful, I thought, how amateurish, how polemical. And what does a gun have to do with the following bucolic scene of digging potatoes and turf? And yet, those words have never left me. And of course, guns were certainly part of the local environment. And I subsequently dug into more of his work, particularly Station Island. Here was a man who loved language, and had the benefit(?) of two rich traditions, the Irish and the English. During the early part of the past century, the Irish language was kept alive as an act of political defiance (it was in fact banned under British rule). And even those who did not speak it could not help but absorb some of its structure and mannerism. Of course, Heaney’s Irish tradition was different than mine. He was there, in the North, whereas my ancestors fled to America. And my ancestors didn’t live in the occupied counties. And of course, Heaney was anything but polemical. Perhaps one virtue of loving two languages is that you can’t hate the people that speak them. And the poems that were infused unavoidably with violence and politics were complicated and conflicted—as befitting the subject matter.

I consider myself, at heart, a Nature poet, so I was of course gripped by poems such as “Death of a Naturalist,” which conveyed the visual scene though its deft imagery and conveyed the sounds and sense through the language itself. Who could not love the guttural consonance of “Bubbles gargled delicately,” or the echoes through “bluebottles,” “spotted,” “slobber,” and “clotted” in the next few lines, or the “strong gauze of sound” with its smashed-together velars? And in describing the frogs with their “blunt heads farting,” he marries the highbrow and the low, the poetic and the vernacular, the serious and the childish. My own poem “Mosquito Spawn” was surely influenced by “Death of a Naturalist,” which probably introduced me to the word “spawn” to describe a clutch of eggs (Heaney’s poem mentions “frogspawn” twice).

Even in “Naturalist,” Heaney’s sense of the Anglo-Saxon tradition is evident, so it’s not surprising that his translation of Beowulf immediately became the definitive version. I’ll never forget opening that book and being stopped by the very first word. As many readers know, the “Hwaet” the starts the story is in fact an aberration from the strict form that follows. And translators have tried various ways to present it. But nobody ever really captured it. Heaney’s solution? “So.” I know that seems simple, even obvious. But no one had done it before. And in that one word, that one syllable, he set the entire scene, evoking an image of an old-timer waiting for the perfect moment to start his story, silencing the rapt kids clustered around the hearthfire.

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In other news, the paperwork has been submitted, so I can now say that I’ve been awarded a 2014 COLA fellowship from the City of Los Angeles. It’s kind of like the city’s version of an NEA grant. So I will have to stop saying that this city does not care about poetry. I might even give a reading or two in town.