‘Poets,’ writes Carol Ann Duffy in this weekend’s Guardian Review, ‘are ultimately celebrators, of life and of poetry itself.’ And Seamus Heaney, in ‘Poet’s Chair’ (1996) has described poetry as ‘a ploughshare that turns time / Up and over …’
Every autumn for the past eight years I’ve come to Sèvres to work with teachers on the teaching of literature. Recently, we have focused a lot of our attention on teaching poetry and poets – especially on the challenge of teaching poetry in English to groups of mainly Francophone students in France.
Last year my theme was ‘The Singer and the Song’. This time I wanted to concentrate on the way poems celebrate life and poetry itself by speaking to each other, as well as to us their readers, across time and cultures and languages.
My first C.U.P. commission, twenty years ago, was to edit a poetry anthology. At a time when anthologies had alarming titles such as Touched With Fire or Dragonsteeth, I called mine The Calling of Kindred. The title was borrowed from a poem by the Welsh poet Ruth Bidgood, and I described in the Preface how it pointed to the central idea underlying my anthology. Echoes of distance and connection between poems explain my selection in The Calling of Kindred. I call this the conversation of poetry.
At Sèvres, I began with a poem by Seamus Heaney, possibly his shortest:
The dotted line my father’s ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won’t wash away. (1996)
Sandymount Strand is a location familiar to readers of James Joyce’s Ulysses:
Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.
Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells ...
Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand …?
A signature and a man walking into eternity are exactly what Heaney's miniature poem – two formal iambic lines separated by the place name – are about. The dots join up in the poet’s mind to form a signature, signed not on but by the dotted line. This signature becomes ‘something else’ of his now-dead father’s to add to other memories time and tide will not erase.
Nevertheless, the poem is called ‘The Strand’. Though this seems less specific than the Dublin seaside suburb (where Yeats was born, incidentally: earlier footsteps on this same beach), it’s an important signpost, pointing the reader in another direction entirely:
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washèd it away;
Again, I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide and made my pains his prey.
Heaney is calling up these lines from the poem by Edmund Spenser. To reach back to them, the ploughshare turns over 400 years of poetry. Earlier at Sèvres, we had been discussing students’ (and teachers?) reluctance to engage with pre-twentieth century poetry. So this reference back to the 16th century was not only important in the context of ‘The Strand’: it offered (I suggested) an ideal opportunity to investigate the form and function of the Elizabethan sonnet.
It’s easy enough to identify the familiar ABAB rhyme scheme of the opening quatrain, but this is no standard Shakespearean sonnet: the next quatrain breaks back into the previous one, BCBC.
Vain man (said she) that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be be wipèd out likewise.
The ebb and return of the waves is also echoed in the internal rhymes and repetitions of the octave: name and came appear twice (and name will become an end rhyme in the sestet); also again, pains, vain (twice, punningly).
Not so (quod I); let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame;
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where, when as Death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.
There’s nothing novel about a poet claiming his poem will immortalize his girl friend – or boy friend (cf. ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?’). Still, the idea of their love living forever in heaven, ready to renew life on earth after the end of the world, is surely just piling conceit (hubris) upon conceit (poetic wit). This isn’t my favourite poem, but it’s a good one to introduce to students.
Back to Heaney. In a later session I proposed that one of his greatest services to literature had been his championing the importance of translation and of other poets unfamiliar to an Anglocentric readership: the Greek George Seferis, for instance, and the Pole Czeslaw Milosz. Heaney himself is a distinguished translator, of Latin (especially Virgil) but also of Anglo-Saxon and – in Human Chain, his most recent collection – of early Irish poetry. Translation, too, is part of the conversation of poetry. More than anyone else, Heaney has convinced me Robert Frost was wrong: poetry is not what gets lost in translation.
Given that my teachers were teaching students all more or less fluent in English and French, I suggested we put this to the test. I took another three lines of Heaney’s (from ‘Digging’) –
Beneath my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests,
Snug as a gun
– and invited translations. Here are three:
Entre mon indexe et mon pouce
Le stylo, trapu,
Se niche comme une arme. (Kaye)
Entre mon indexe et mon pouce
Dort la grosse plume:
Un fusil dans son fourreau. (Garry)
Entre mon doigt et mon pouce
Se blottit mon stylo,
Calé comme un fusil. (Emmanuelle)
My own attempt had cost me an hour of effort the previous night, and was laughably inept. Each of these, by contrast, sends the reader back to Heaney’s original words with renewed attention. That’s the value of this exercise: you need to be a good listener, and a good reader, to tune into the conversation of poetry.
[Photos: (i)‘Le pavilion de Lulli’ in the grounds of the Centre International d’Etudes Pédagogiques (CIEP), Sèvres, France (ii) Teachers during the two-day session at CIEP. Photographs © the author.
‘Poet’s Chair’ and ‘The Strand’ are in Heaney’s collection The Spirit Level, Faber and Faber (1996). ‘Digging’ is from Death of a Naturalist (1966).