“And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air …. I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible.”
Seamus Heaney’s lecture to the Nobel Foundation recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1995
I woke up at 3 a.m. and in the early morn I could almost hear Seamus Heaney reading “Death of a Naturalist” on a YouTube video, perhaps preserved for all time. I’d driven down one of the old roads of Virginia the day before, a road that reminded me of another Heaney line from “The Wood Road.” In the dark, I turned to my phone and tweeted out the line with an image I’d captured from the side of a gravelled lane.
How many times in the lives of humans do we connect moments together in the night only to figure out why in the light of day? What compels the subconscious to make sense of that which is important to us when the conscious forgets? When I opened an RSS news feed from Ireland mid-morning I knew why Heaney had slipped his voice into my night dreams. Today. August 30, 2014. The first anniversary of his death.
I’m reminded on this anniversary that it is a poet’s words that make the content and context of humanity accessible to us all. Poets make meaning for us – the artistry of converting image to word.
It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.
(from “Exposure”, 1975)
Poets solve conundrums and, like mathematicians, they subtract the extraneous and leave the essential, the perfectly constructed theorem on the blackboard. They notice the world; quantum word mechanics who machine together patterns of space and time.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.
(from “Clearances”, 1986)
Poets create lines of code, a complexity of action no less sophisticated than the work of a great programmer.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open
And, poets seek to understand as philosophers, seeking unknown answers to questions asked.
…. Where had we come from, what was this kingdom
We knew we’d been restored to? (from “Leaving Going“, 1993)
Why cherish the words of poets in a time when we educators are told it’s far more important to focus today’s children on informational texts than poetry?
I am no poet. I studied science. I taught science. My love of science has shaped my interests and my perspectives on education. At the same time, I know we humans have always reflected the importance of the cultural spaces we inhabit. Cave paintings under flickering firelight, images created on walls before poetic word. The ancient language of Beowulf, spoken aloud by Seamus Heaney as poetry was intended to be shared. NPR’s anthology of rap and fifth grader ‘Savannah‘ who wrote “Waiting in the Dark” so many years ago in the school where I was principal.
Why poetry in 2014? Poets explore the richness of what makes us human, placing words perfectly into the air for us to hear.
Poets link the disciplines of learning. Poets evoke the faces around us. Poets remind us we humans are more than the training manuals and research texts that some would say define us in this century.
Heaney’s poetry did all of that for us.