Seamus Heaney Redux

February 28, 2022

I was very pleased with the first Fridays at 4 gathering.  It was great to see so many familiar faces and hear all that passion for poetry.  We certainly mentioned Heaney, and the documentary The Music of What Happens, but we didn’t actually look at any specific poems.  I’d like to do more of that this coming Friday with a specific focus: reading as a reader, and reading as a writer.  Obviously those two overlap for those of us who write poetry, but I think there are big differences between the two.  When I’m reading a poem through my writer’s eye I’m reading selfishly, looking at how it’s made. I take in the content, of course, and am moved by it.  But often it’s the craft that’s in the foreground for me–how the poem transitions from one point to another, and travels down the page; where it shifts verb tense or point of view; how it moves around in time;  how it uses white space.  I think about how the poem might have begun for the poet, and about the choices he or she made, how it might have been done differently.

Here’s the program for  the March 4th Fridays at 4 (eastern time) conversation. I’ve invited Jay Parini to join me to discuss two poems by Seamus Heaney, “Midterm” and “Exposure,” through the lenses of reader and writer.  Jay Parini is a poet, novelist, and biographer.  His most recent books are New and Collected Poems: 1975-2015; and Borges and Me: An Encounter. 

And here are the two poems we thought to start the reader/writer dialogue with, “Midterm” and “Exposure.”  Jay and I will discuss them first with each other, and then open the conversation.  Feel free to bring favorite Heaney poems to read and refer to, and to bring your friends–just no zoom bombers.  I’ll send the link later in the week.

In the meantime, please go ahead and comment here on the two poems.  If you have any questions, feel free to email me.




I sat all morning in the college sick bay

Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.


In the porch I met my father crying—

He had always taken funerals in his stride—

And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.


The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram

When I came in, and I was embarrassed

By old men standing up to shake my hand


And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.

Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,

Away at school, as my mother held my hand


In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.

At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived

With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.


Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops

And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him

For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,


Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.


A four-foot box, a foot for every year.





It is December in Wicklow:

Alders dripping, birches

Inheriting the last light,

The ash tree cold to look at.


A comet that was lost

Should be visible at sunset,

Those million tons of light

Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,


And I sometimes see a falling star.

If I could come on meteorite!

Instead I walk through damp leaves,

Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,


Imagining a hero

On some muddy compound,

His gift like a slingstone

Whirled for the desperate.


How did I end up like this?

I often think of my friends’

Beautiful prismatic counselling

And the anvil brains of some who hate me


As I sit weighing and weighing

My responsible tristia.

For what? For the ear? For the people?

For what is said behind-backs?


Rain comes down through the alders,

Its low conductive voices

Mutter about let-downs and erosions

And yet each drop recalls


The diamond absolutes.

I am neither internee nor informer;

An inner migr, grown long-haired

And thoughtful; a wood-kerne


Escaped from the massacre,

Taking protective colouring

From bole and bark, feeling

Every wind that blows;


Who, blowing up these sparks

For their meagre heat, have missed

The once-in-a-lifetime portent,

The comet’s pulsing rose.

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1 Comment

  • Reply martha zweig March 4, 2022 at 11:48 am

    I believe I ought to establish that, as a lifelong non-academic, I am shockingly ill-read in specific authors’ lives and oeuvres. I read poems relatively at random, online and in magazines. I maintain my own personal anthology of favorites: hundreds of poems by now, including Chorus, The Nod and A Clip by Seamus Heaney.

    As between today’s two, I favor Exposure. I can’t find meanings for “tristia” (something sad?) or “migr’ (migraineish? meager?)

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