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Seamus Heaney Reflects On His Life In Verse

04/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

This past week, Seamus Heaney was awarded the prestigious David Cohen prize for his life's work in poetry. It gave Heaney (who turns 70 next month) the chance to reflect on his career, and gives us the chance to as well. The ceremony, interestingly, called for Heaney to select two poems that sum up his work. He was upfront about the difficulty of this: " I have a slight problem in knowing how to represent a lifetime of poems by reading only a couple of them."

It was no doubt a tough task for the Nobel Laureate. Born to farmers in rural County Derry in Northern Ireland, Heaney's life changed dramatically at the age of 12 when he earned a scholarship to a local Catholic boarding school, an opportunity he would later describe as moving from "the earth of farm labour to the heaven of education." His poetry is often occupied with the gap--and the bridge--between such an earth and heaven, and I was a little surprised that he didn't choose a poem addressing that theme, such as the well-known "Digging," wherein he compares his father's labor ("by God, the old man could handle a spade. /Just like his old man") to the work he does with his pen.

Instead, Heaney chose two poems which speak to the poetic process: the short lyric poem "Underground" and the sonnet "A Drink of Water." "Underground" recounts a moment when Heaney and his new bride ran to catch a concert at Royal Albert Hall. He conflates the memory with a series of mythological allusions:

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

Heaney chose "Underground", in part, "in gratitude for all that London and the people I have known in London have given by way of literary inspiration and confirmation." Given the circumstances, one can also read it as a comment on nostalgia. Perhaps Heaney, retracing his career, is returning more solemnly to scenes of passion, in which case the phrase "damned if I look back," a nod to the myth of Orpheus, takes on a very different meaning. But I like best how the poem speaks to the poetic process. Specifically, how the poet revisits the vivid scene portrayed in the first two stanzas in the relative tranquility of the last two: "lifting the buttons...After the trains have gone, the wet track/ Bared and tensed as I am, all attention". The poem enacts the Wordsworthian idea of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility.

Heaney's second choice, "A Drink of Water," also speaks to the poetic process. In this case, it's the act of finding inspiration from an unlikely muse:

She came every morning to draw water
Like an old bat staggering up the field:
The pump's whooping cough, the bucket's clatter
And slow diminuendo as it filled,
Announced her. I recall
Her gray apron, the pocked white enamel
Of the brimming bucket, and the treble
Creak of her voice like the pump's handle.
Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable
It fell back through her window and would lie
Into the water set out on the table.
Where I have dipped to drink again, to be
Faithful to the admonishment on her cup,
Remember the Giver fading off the lip.

Heaney told his audience that "A Drink of Water" is in some ways about "receiving a gift and being enjoined to 'remember the giver'," but that he also intended for water to symbolize poetic inspiration:

"The old lady in the poem was a neighbour, a crone, as she might have been described, who lived on her own, down the fields from us," he said. "To us kids she had a certain witch-like aura, but in the poem she becomes more like a muse offering the cup of poetry to the child incertus."

Incertus, a Latin word that roughly translates to uncertain, is also the pseudonym under which Heaney published his first poems. The Nobel Prize winning poet should, by now, at least, be sure of the success of his life's work.

You can read more of Seamus Heaney's work here.