Monday, August 17, 2015

Shame A Sidhe Nee Note

'I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible. I credit it immediately because of a line I wrote fairly recently recently instructing myself (and whoever else might be listening) to walk on air against your better judgement.'
 Seamus Heaney, Nobel lecture, 1995, Stockholm.

What's the story? The message? What are we being encouraged to do by Seamus Heaney as people who might be listening?

From the response of the local and global Heaney audiences, an emerging consensus is affirming that it means what Heaney hinted it meant in his Nobel acceptance speech, Crediting Poetry, shortly after he'd first written the poem, The Gravel Walks, that appears half-way thru his first post-Nobel collection, The Spirit Level, in which the line's earliest poetic context appears.

Enact the line above as a living person. 

Or as Heaney said himself in an October 2008 Harvard Crimson interview: 'I began to look up rather than keep down. I think it had to do with a sense that the marvellous was as permissible as the matter-of-fact in poetry.'

Certainly Historian Eugene Kielt who runs Heaney tours, gets it right, in my opinion, when he opines that it is 'very inspirational. It is about going for it. We are naturally cautious and sometimes someone should throw caution to the wind.'

Kielt continues, that though some charge of this advice is about 'keeping your feet on the ground', it's  about 'looking up as well. It is (primarily) about risk taking and not being inhibited, losing your inhibitions.'

If Heaney chose this epitaph himself, as Yeats did his own, the Heaney family can rest assured that there's at least one from the vigorous throng of filidh/poets on Britain and Ireland following in the wake of this Ard Ollamh - with a forty year presence at the very top of world poetry - practising what Heaney calls, the 'professional love' a wordsmith has for their Muse.

Heaney's writing is held in such high regard because he had learned as authentically as any filidh taught on the curriculum that turned out forty generations of Irish rhymers from the fifth to the seventeenth century.

I was never introduced to Ireland's last ard ollamh during this past decade in which I've been living in Dublin.

And incertus oneself. Indeed, it was noted by one wit when I first arrived with an A4 notebook, live-writing in what Heaney in one of his essays calls the golden circle - that, prematurely silver-haired, I looked like a younger version of the national bard. However, I was far too timid and shy to approach and introduce myself to him.

This is because Heaney was the only poet I knew, or was consciously aware of, that - in my own mind at least - had the power to personally make or break my belief in the veracity of what I was up to, at that stage starting out on the road of literary learning and letters; at bardic grades one or two, a foclo or macfirmid, 'word-weaving beginner', or 'son of composition' - barely four years in, and not far from the beginning of a fourteen year journey through the (seven) bard and filidh/poets grades.

I was happy and feel blessed to have just been in the same room as him, observing and learning from the best poet in the world, on their home turf, just another of the many filidh in the ultra-competitive  throng at Tara seeking affirmation, validation and favour from a high poet-king and linguistic leader of himself alone, first; then his family, and people that flocked from all over the globe to watch and learn from this then living container of pure poetic spirit that had earned the right to walk rhyming on air, and talk with ultimate authority on the poetic act and art, not because of who he stood next to, or who was socially drawn to him, but by being the best at what he did. Poetry/Filíocht.


I was blessed by poetry, fate and dán - that in its most antique and authentic context means 'fate' as well as 'poem', 'poetry' and 'art' -  to witness Heaney speaking, both poetry and prose, on five or six occasions. One one occasion, four months after I'd first arrived, in the thick of the Kavanagh 2004 centenary; during a St Patricks College, Drumcondra, Seamus Heaney Series, of six lectures, on child cognitive abilities, the week following his own on Kavanagh, that I also attended - I looked up from the note-taking I'd been writing and there was Heaney's back, directly in front of me, sitting down watching and listening to the same lecture.

I only realised it was him close to the end of the lecture. Note-taking thru most of it, it had gradually, over the final minute or two, dawned on me, as I intermittently looked up and caught glimpses of this senior person's head turning occasionally slightly to the right and left; that the best poet in the world had chosen to sit right in front of me. He'd sat down after me, and, no doubt, had observed before he did, me writing in my own private circle of studious concentration, oblivious to his presence. Unlike most other scribes and would-be poets of Ireland in the room that night, I suspect.

As I already mentioned, when I arrived in 2004 it was Kavanagh's birth centenary, and everyone in Dublin was on the bandwagon. Somewhat ironically he had become an establishment icon, long after his life was over, when the official Irish literary establishment didn't give him the time of day.

During that summer, a new pal I'd just made from Write and Recite, a weekly poetry open-mic (no special guests, just an open mic) that ran in Dublin from 2004-8, PJ Brady, was in a one-man play in which he plays the role of Patrick Kavanagh, and I had volunteered to put a couple of posters from his ten or so full-size glossy-poster stash, up in as prominent and relevant places as I could find.

There were two events, one was a Kavanagh manuscript exhibition at the National Library and the other was the Royal College of Surgeons launch of Peter Fallon's translation of Virgil's Georgics, published by his own imprint, The Gallery Press; with fellow Gallery Press poet Seamus Heaney introducing his publisher's translation of the Latin bard.

These, I thought, were two of the most perfect places to catch Dublin's poetry buffs. The Kavanagh manuscript launch was on Kildare Street at six-thirty and Fallon at seven pm, five minutes away in the College of Surgeons, Stephens Green.

I arrived at the library and asked if it was OK to put a poster up, and the security man said fine, no problem. After I had put one up I thought it would be an idea to ask whoever was doing the introductory spiel of the main speaker, if they could mention PJ's show. I ended up talking to the third in charge person, who came out with a classic reason, after being asked if she could ask the main honcho to mention the show -

"I don't think it would be appropriate in the circumstances."

I couldn't help but inwardly laugh, thinking "what circumstances are they? This is a Kavanagh event, Ireland's premier Kavanagh actor is having a limited run of a world-class Kavanagh show, performing his own prose and poems on stage; surely the circumstances couldn't be more apt and appropriate?"

However, being new to Dublin and still enthralled with the place, I moved on unbeaten by this, what I thought, petty refusal; to Peter Fallon's launch, and thought I would just play it by ear. Operate on poetic instinct.

When I got there I decided to forget asking for a mention and just put the poster up in the wine and cheese area of the ballroom where all the important faces and the great and good of Irish poetry (that I did not recognise) were to mingle post book launch - that happened in the main raked, six or seven tiered, college of surgeons lecture theatre .

The ballroom was an imposing high-vaulted space with an intricately decorated ceiling adorned with expensive oak and plaster friezes, and fading oil portraits of various Augustine personages hung staring out on the walls; but the sash windows had been faced with interior double glazing, making an excellent flat surface for the poster.

After the library vibe I thought it best to completely cover all bases, and so got permission from the security man to put it up. So, after the launch, as the crowd mingled, I went to put it up, but half way through a man who was clearly involved in the launch - I had watched him introduce Heaney at the start of the event in the main lecture hall - came over in a very agitated and disgruntled state, and we had the following exchange -

"You can't put that up here."

"It's OK, I got permission to put it up."

"What, from security?" (somewhat disbelievingly)


"Well, erm they probably think you're with us. You'll have to take it down."

By this time I was inwardly laughing more than I had been at the library, as he was obviously very highly charged, probably because of the high profile nature of the event, so I said "no problem" and started to slowly un-sellotape the two thirds affixed poster, which is when the funniest thing happened. He physically interjected and said:

"Here, let me help you."

And just at this point about to tear it away like an angry executive snatching a latte from a facetious office boy, he realised his behaviour was drawing attention away from the main focus and centre of poetic gravity in the space and onto us. And he blushed brightly before turning on his heels and then shuffled off to fulfill his role of chief smiler, hand-shaker and chit chatter of poetry related pleasantries with those present.

He had inadvertently given me more free publicity than I could have hoped for, as the eyes in the room noted from their corners the then Director of Poetry Ireland / Éigse Éireann (i later learned), the Louth poet, Joe Woods, had been having the frisson of socially combative exchange with.

As you will be aware, at the wine and cheese do's any news is big news, no matter how slight, so I felt somewhat pleased with my efforts. I had not gone out to create a fuss, but still the fuss came and could not have been better scripted.

I had been to my first Dublin literary establishment splashes, back to back, and all in all a good evening's voluntary work had come of it. I ended up spotting a mobile notice-board just outside the sumptuous ballroom and decided to put the poster on there.

When I had slowly and methodically done so I turned round and was immediately met, ten feet away, by the eyes of Fallon and Heaney; who were having a one on one time out from the bustle of the ballroom, alone sitting on two chairs to the side at the top of the sweeping marble staircase, saying nothing and staring directly at me.

And with no sign of acknowledgement from them of me beyond the stare, caught unawares, not realising they were there, I sheepishly raised my eyes and walked off with a fixed lip-clamped face-pull of one spotted by the ollúna at their most authentic and natural in their own golden circle of imaginative and playful child-like artistic concentration.

I was filled with emotional and intellectual positivity at the success of my creative mission, smiling in joyful surprise as I vacated the building, welling with imbhas and feeling I had made a perfect first impression in the golden poetry circle at the height of this collective delusional spell of Celtic Tiger madness; that I believe (tho it's very unpopular and unpatriotic to utter any disagreement with the magical doctrine that the bubble is going to expand and last forever) - will spectacularly crash. I am certain of it."

contd@ Jan Manzwotz Blog, created four years after starting to write, at the start of one person's journey thru the thickets of the English language in Dublin. Created as an unconscious and instinctual part of the Finn McCool find ye name process taught to forty generations of Irish rhymers.
A metaphorical bardic poetry lesson from one that learned to love letters a long route - from the curriculum's core reading material found hitting ye head over and over again with it, until the contents of what a fíli poet had to learn, sunk in. From the pages of the unimprovable original druidic poet-training manual ye still have at the educational centre of ye poetic practice in contemporary Ireland: Auraicept na n-Éces.

Desmond Swords

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