Saturday, April 9, 2011

'Anahorish' by Seamus Heaney' & 'Epic' by Patrick Kavanagh

                   I have lived in important places, times
                        When great events were decided, who owned
                        That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
                        Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
                        I have heard the Duffy’s shouting “Damn your soul”
                        And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
                        Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
                        “Here is the march along these iron stones.”
                        That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.




My ‘place of clear water’
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass

and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings.
With pails and barrows

those mound dwellers
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills.


Against the almost ontological response to the natural world found in the Stevens and Bonnefoy pieces, these two poems from Kavanagh and Heaney show an entirely different emphasis. Like the ‘Snowman’ and ‘Place of the Salamander’, both poems attempt an negotiation between the poet and the environment, but here the negotiation is one imbued with a sense of the historical/mythological context. To put it differently, for Heaney and Kavanagh, the natural world is not just place but place and memory. And memory moves down through the strata of place and personal history, forming a dialogue between geographical places and the lives of those who have lived in them.

While Kavanagh’s poem attempts explicitly to locate the human drama in a mythical landscape (as the title suggests), he does this not by abstracting or generalising the historical but by bringing it back to its local origins. In this way, he establishes the significance of the lives of people and the places where those lives happen as McCabe and Duffy fight over a land boundary. And in doing this Kavanagh doesn’t expend with the actualities of either the people involved or the seeming-small nature of the dispute. In other words, he restores ‘epic’ events to their real locations. His backdrops are not painted. They are tactile and necessary. There is a sense of deep history at work: “...Homer’s ghost came whispering/ To my mind. He said: I made the Iliad from such/ A local row...”

If Bonnefoy had written about a place like ‘Anahorish’ he probably would’ve simply called it ‘A Hill’ or ‘A Spring’. For Heaney, though, it is crucial that this location has a place-name and an historical orientation through this act of naming – and by historical here, I mean that again in the local sense. It is, for Heaney, as if the place name and the place are equally significant and inform each other. In the end, they are inseperable. He writes:

Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings...

Yet, the place is not diminished by this process of locating it in historical and even mythological time (he calls it 'the first hill in the world'). The naming is part of the relationship with those who have lived there, establishing this encounter (the poem) in a lineage of many such encounters. The process is open-ended, aware of the presence of the past but capable of allowing the personal present to co-exist, in a sense, with the pressure of the historical to find his ‘place of clear water’. It also represents a preoccupation in Irish poetry about 'named' place. One might say, to a point, sometimes, of a refusal to a more universal sense of displacement to the ontological, as found in French poetry...

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