Heaney in County Derry

April 13: On this day in 1939 Seamus Heaney was born, the eldest of nine children on a County Derry farm. Heaney's first collection of poems earned four major awards and provoked Christopher Ricks to declare that those "who remain unstirred by Seamus Heaney's poems will simply be announcing that they are unable to give up the habit of disillusionment with recent poetry." There have been some three dozen books since, and the awards list now includes a Nobel. In "Crediting Poetry," his Nobel Lecture, Heaney recalls when the childhood farm kitchen was a cosmos:

In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course—rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house—but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation.

In "A Sofa in the Forties" (The Spirit Level, 1996), Heaney recalls "All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling / Behind each other, eldest down to youngest, / Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train." With help from the radio, the nine kids left the three rooms for "history and ignorance": "Yippee-I-ay, / Sang 'The Riders of the Range.' HERE IS THE NEWS, / Said the absolute speaker...." At the closing lines, the living-room child-train chugs on confidently through unimaginable hairpin turns and potential disasters:

…we sensed

A tunnel coming up where we'd pour through

 

Like unlit carriages through fields at night,

Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead,

And be transported and make engine noise.

Heaney says in his Nobel speech that the radio brought first news of places like Stockholm. He also recalls the worldly advice of his Ballymurphy schoolmaster: "Work hard and when you leave school, don't end up measuring your spits on some street corner."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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