three : I. Gurney – To His Love. Responses.

K: I find this an interesting but a bit of a strange poem, on early reading. It didn’t turn out to be at all as I expected it to be when I first glanced down the words and subject! Maybe that sounds odd, but, to me this is a poem that has to be read and reread aloud to appreciate properly – to hear as Gurney intended it. As with all the poem’s we’ve looked at so far there’s tons more going on than it first appears. So.

K – Phrasing: I didn’t realise until I just read His Love out loud to myself (perhaps the fourth time I’d read it overall) that the poem has the odd, close rhyming pattern it does – ABCBB. I find it quite jarring and difficult to read, almost discordant and definitely awkward. The two B lines are so close together and the rhymes are so blatant – wet – forget, feed – heed – you almost wish you could put another line in there to make it sound less hurried. The phrasing doesn’t roll and develop as one might like it to. This uncomfortable effect has surely got to be an aural illustration of the pain of the poet’s loss. Like someone choking on their words in grief the flow of the lines is faltering rather than undulating and the phrases buck and break. Similarly, the shortness of the lines mimic that same idea since they are undeveloped, restless and peppered with punctuation that alters the speed and emphases with which the poem can be read. The elipses: “You would not know him now…/But still he died” obviously add poignancy and force reflection on the death of the friend whereas the exclamation mark following repetition: “Cover him, cover him quick!” require a quick and urgent reading. I think this variety in speed adds some immediacy to the poem and mirror the erratic nature of grief.

B – I agree fully, I keep re-reading it trying to make it sound right, to make it flow better and agree that it can definitely be associated with the poets own loss and inability or refusal to be beautiful. It almost feels like a forced poem, like a poem is what the situation demands but the poet can only deliver this which feels very hurried or like he is fore-filling a request. A point about the rhyme scheme, ABCBB – “indeed, feed, heed” then “you, blue, through” etc… Is this an established poetic style? I’m not sure but it almost feels, going back to my previous point, that he is shoehorning his words to a pre-existing poetic form and restriction. It is a frustrating poem and I cant decide if I think it is a good poem or not, if it works.

K: Yeah I know what you mean, it definitely does seem shoehorned. I guess rhyming couplets is a very established style but the combination of the couplets with another rhyme earlier on does sound unusual. I really like your point about it refusing to be beautiful, too. I don’t know if that makes me like it more or less…because on the one hand it’s clever and befitting of the circumstances in that sense, but then my instinct is to want something more melodic! I just checked out that great blog, ‘Move him into the sun’ (but only just now, I promise!) and its writer, Mr Griffiths, describes it as a “musical” poem – which is interesting given all we’ve said about it. I guess it is, but pretty clattering music! He also describes its “elusive rhythm”, which I think speaks to our reactions a bit more.

B: Yes I’d read that too and tend to disagree with him on this one. I think this is something we will come back to in the proposed essay but it seems like we may have inadvertently tapped into the very question of Gurnery’s poetry, namely was he a formalist Georgian poet gone mad, limited by his adherence to the norms of such poetry, romantic and sentimental, the rhyming scheme and the “use of assonance and alliteration” which Mr Griffiths highlights. Or was he rather subverting this form from the outset before he rejected it all together, the disjointedness we have highlighted, the run-over mouthfuls and the grasping, violent ending “That red wet/ Thing I must how forget.”

K: That’s so interesting and I think that’s a very attractive reading, especially after having read around his life a bit. It definitely is jarring, the way the violent and angry imagery is set against the natural imagery and constrained within the traditional rhyming scheme. The more I think ponder on it the more fitting that all is.

B – So what do we think he is actually talking about? I suppose I read it as a fellow solider writing to the dead man’s family or friends? So the “our” is them all and the “you” the ones back home. This is confused by the “our boat”, a shared boat? The poem almost feels vindictive and is certainly not pulling any punches; it is angry. The way the poet implores the respondent to “cover him over”, so the responsibilty must lie with them despite the fact that they are only finding out of his death in the poem? The point about the burial being wrapped to the landscape is a great one, an clear and present theme of the poem. I just had a thought that you could perhaps read it as from a jealous lover to his wife, the way it is so snarky and claims that the recieved knows nothing of him anymore, but social norms dictate that it she that must bury. This would also fit with the “plans now useless indeed” and the movement in the poem from descrptions of things done between the poet and the dead man and towards the need of him being buried by “his love”. Basically I am asking what were the sheep taking no heed of?

K – What you say here about the burial being wrapped in the landscape clarifies what I was getting towards thinking above, I fully agree about its “presentness”- something about the continual connection of nature with the body softens the otherwise very hard nature of the poem, but most importantly, it does make his death seem transient and fugitive – something that will be swallowed, covered, shrouded by the landscape and he will “somehow forget”. Seems funny that it took us (well, you, I hadn’t at all!) till this far along to actually address the message of the poem. It seems well established that the poem is directed at the wife of Gurney’s friend (Mr Griffiths says it’s to the fiancé of Willy Harvey, Gurney’s friend, but that Harvey didn’t actually die.  Particularly given the title and the possessiveness of some of the lines, it definitely does seem like a love poem in some ways.  I think the line “You would not know him now…” might be important, it struck me straight away reading the poem that that line points not only to now that he’s dead, but in general – the protagonist knows and loves him better than the fiancé does. It’s incredibly angry, and it seems totally clear that the protagonist feels himself closer to the dead soldier than his family: the plans, the boat, are theirs, not hers.

K: Moving on to the poem’s message, its imagery and Gurney’s language choice, it’s worth noting the poignant simplicity of the words chosen – there isn’t really anything complicated or hidden – and we know that this is going to be the tone of the poem from the opening words: “He’s gone”. The form of the poem is fairly formulaic too – each stanza begins with a war image, then alludes to the Cotswold’s intertwined with the death. The burial ritual is entirely tied up with the landscape, which is as much a part of the protagonist as the dead soldier. Reading Donald Davie’s thoughts on this has been really interesting though. We’ll no doubt discuss this more in the essay, but I think it’s worth mentioning here that Davie insists that Gurney is “far from being a nature-poet”, and that Gurney felt no consolation from the landscape. What do you make of that? I think the idea that the “violets of pride/purple from seven side” are suggested as a shroud for the body is quite comforting, especially with the idea of pride. But perhaps he’s connecting the fragility/fleeting nature of the flowers with that of human life. What do you think?

B : I found a draft of the poem from 1916 which shows that this section, violets of pride, saw the most revision. It is a little hard to make out but it seems that he first had it as “a pride of violets” which gives a slightly different tone, something less striking I feel. As to Davie, I quite strongly disagree. Although perhaps not a nature poet as some where at the time, I think he absolutely found consolation in the landscape, at all of the various stages of his episodic life. That is not to say he thought it benign or something to be simply venerated, but rather he took it seriously, he saw the life of nature and the life of man as intertwined, just as he saw more to be found in common than to divide in rural and urban simple living. One can see beauty or splendour in flowers without reducing them to inactive objects, to polishable images. What Gurney has written is perhaps sanitised by the form, and not revealed until it is fully thought through. What he is asking for is the a wet, bloody, mutilated corpse, perhaps with shrapnel lodged and limbs missing, be covered over by purple petals. Hundreds would be needed, maybe thousands, all ripped up from “Seven’s side” leaving it bare. And what would be left? A purple tomb, which in weeks and months would turn to brown and then white as the dead flowers and dead man rotted. Leaving a skeleton by the river. This is not a poem of sentiment nor romance but as you say of fragility of pain and desolation.

K: Yeah I’m happy you said you disagreed with Davie on that one – I was definitely inclined to just accept what he said but, you’re right, it’s deeper than that. About the draft, it seems like Gurney originally went for a lot more flower imagery – I think I can see “daffodils in grace from most tender musings” and something else about bluebells. Seeing that there underscores the intertwining of nature and man you mention – but keeping those lines would have taken out a fair bit of the pain and anger, so I can understand the edit. Also, slightly off tangent but I wondered about how he’d changed “violets of pride” from “pride of violets” and wanted to check the definition of pride – because the latter almost sounds like the plural for violets. Anyway, the OED includes two really interesting entries, in addition to the standard one. Firstly: Pride: “n. Any of various body organs, esp. the spleen or a sexual organ.” The examples given date from middle English to the 1950s so it’s possible Gurney was aware of this meaning – I mean, I don’t expect he’s really making anything like a blatant reference to organs in the lines but it could be a knowing coincidence. Even if it wasn’t at all, knowing it now makes the line even more spine tingling for me! Secondly: “v.trans. To ornament or adorn magnificently. Obs.” This one’s interesting in light of the revisions.  I also think perhaps it’s more likely to have been part of Gurney’s thinking, too. This definition suggests Gurney chose the word not so much meaning pride in terms of the dead love’s valiant death (or, not only in that sense), but as a more explicitly tender reference to the veneration he feels to the man’s character and the flowers’ capacity to suitably adorn him.

B: Those meanings are so wonderfully apt, and I’d not thought of it in these terms at all. Saving his pride (his shredded body, dismembered) with a pride of violets. Gurney! Well I think that will do. Excellent.


Make your soul grow

In starting to think tentatively about edging into considering possibly attempting to make a case for brainstorming the notion of perhaps writing something relatively close to poetry, I thought of this wonderful Letter of Note from the wunderbar Kurt Vonnegut.

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

three : I. Gurney – To His Love

B –  While the first two poems – Heaney’s and Thomas’s – have a clear connection, this next choice of Gurney requires a little more explanation. I recently re-read a Geoff Dyer essay on the death of his uncle,  in response to my own Grandfathers death (Dyer was one of my Grandfather’s favourites in the genre). The essay is an exposition on the works of Ivor Gurney as well as a meditation on funerals, families and coming home – it ends with some lines from this poem. Home for Dyer, as it was for Gurney, is Gloucestershire and it is here that the link the Thomas can be made. Thomas was a member of what became known as the Dymock Poets, based around Dymock in Gloucestershire. It was here that Thomas met his great friend and mentor Robert Frost who, as mentioned below, encouraged him to write poetry. Thomas and Frost used to go out on what Frost called “talks-walking“, long, map-free rambles during which time topics such as “marriage and friendship, wildlife, poetry and the war” were digested. Given this primacy of the countryside, it is with Gloucestershire and the war in mind that we move on to Gurney.

I. Gurney – To His Love (1917)

He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

F. R. Levias on Thomas

Levias, F.R. (1939),’The Fate of Edward Thomas’, Scrutiny, p441-442, March

“The poetry is devoted almost wholly to expressing the characteristic unhappiness of his life, and has corresponding limitations of the kind that D. W. Harding indicates. Yet there it is, a fine and unique, if decidedly limited, poetry ;the particular thing it is — and it expresses a representative kind of modern experience — conditioned by that particular history of the poet. A happy Edward Thomas might have written no poetry at all.”


using words “as poets do”

Fitzgerald, P (1996), ‘Obstacles‘ , The London Review of Books, 4 July


"He began to write poetry in December 1914, and all his poems were written by December 1916. Credit for this is usually given to Frost, certainly by Thomas himself, although Frost declared that ‘all he ever got was an admiration for the poet in him before he had written a line.’ Certainly they were agreed at once on the relationship between traditional metre and the tones and half-tones of the spoken voice, a kind of counterpoint. But Frost’s practical advice to his friend in 1914 was to look at certain passages in his latest book, The Pursuit of Spring, and to write them again in verse form, but with exactly the same cadence. It seems unusual advice, not quite using words ‘as poets do’, and Thomas sometimes tried it the other way round, turning poems back into prose, though he did describe this as ‘unprofitable’.”

two : E. Thomas – As the Team’s Head Brass. Responses.

B: As we know, this is the poem that Seamus is responding to in his poem discussed last week – In a Field. Like the Heaney poem, it is a poem about war in which no one is killed, there is no blood, or bombs yet in which the effects of the war, the way it seeps into everything, is presented incredibly powerfully. It is split into two fairly distinct stanzas, the first setting up the conversation of the second. The protagonist seems to be a traveller, a stranger,  who has stopped to observe the ploughing and talk to the farmer. Like in the Heaney, there is use of distinct ploughing terminology “the teams head brass”, “scraping the share”, “screwed along the furrow”. I’ll admit that I had only the vaguest idea about what these phrases meant before looking them up. In doing so I found the wonderful  WW1 poetry blog of Southfields Academy in Wandsworth, London1. The notes on this poem are revelatory as to the meaning of the pastoral language, in case you shared my ignorance. All refer to the act of ploughing which is taking place throughout the poem. In fact it frames and punctuates the poem, with the procession and flashing brass of the ploughshare opening and closing the poem. Again like the Heaney the war is brought in though contrast, it is reflected in the endless, timeless ritual of ploughing. Yet as opposed to Heaney, the war for Thomas is not something imposed nor disruptive. It is integrated, can be talked of casually as when the farmer talks “first about the weather, next about the war.” War here is something, like the weather, to allow for connections to be made, for conversation to flow, something all experience so all can talk of. It is also perhaps, like the weather, something  unchanging, unknowable, unstoppable, something that just happens. For Heaney the war is specific, is distant and is personified, is something with a different geography, now imposed. While here in Thomas the war is already here, it is in fact everywhere but diffuse.

In Farjeon’s biography of Thomas she talks of the integrity of weather to his thinking, mentioning that “other people talk about the weather, Edward lived it.” Robert Macfarlane takes this up in his most recent book, which leans heavily on Thomas’ writing. Macfarlane claims that, like the landscape, Thomas saw weather as a place to think from, not something simply to be admired from a distance. It is something which affects and through which thought it possible, it “presses hard upon our bodies, mind, and sensibilities.” So. Considering this perhaps instead of the talk of weather provincialising talk of war the comparison allows both to become something transcendental or divine, as outlined above, but also profoundly material, pressing and requiring response.

K:  Looking straight to the poem, even after the first reading, I was struck by Thomas’ use of time across this poem, and how the first stanza acts as a description of one unit – one that is repeated again in the second stanza – one square of ploughing, and one conversation with the farmer. Ending with “once more” indicates the cyclical diligence of this observed process. I was also immediately caught by the feeling that, like Heaney, Thomas focuses on and plays with the idea of boundaries – both poets describe the action of marking out and physically creating edges and cleavages in the earth, and describe this process as drawing in and in, tighter and tighter as the poem and its other themes grow. That the protagonist is sitting in a tree “that strewed the angle of the fallow” – literally on a boundary – gives the impression that he is outside of the regimented farming mechanics – he is sat on the meeting point of fallow land and farm land. It punctuates the moment. I think this both emphasises the point you make, above, about him appearing like a stranger in the poem – he has imposed himself on the normal boundaries of the farm – and the fact that a more unusual exchange about war and life as they normally knew it is happening – in spite of the fact that it comes out of a seemingly quotidian conversation about the weather.  The specific naming of farming procedures and plants is interesting as you say – and well done for finding that explanatory blog! As we heard on the Echo Chamber the other night, Thomas never claimed anything other than to know the names of plants and flowers and rather eschewed the idea of making deep intellectual points in his poetry. He didn’t think of himself as speaking from above or below about something bigger. I do like that, but it definitely has a deeper effect than he’s comfortable with admitting! It makes me feel like Thomas is exposing us to this different, alien farming world, which has its own language and grammars – I don’t think it’s assumed that we’d know what the plants and mechanics are – so we’re rooted down in their world, looking in. I also find the pastoral descriptions are almost comforting in their vivid specificity, a quiet attention to nature that mimics its gentle, repetitive rhythm.

B: I like the point about the literal marginality of the protagonist, observing from the edge of the farm land. The conversation takes place across the shifting boundary, unlike in Heaney in which the boundary is broken by the “one who arrives”. Perhaps we can relate this partly to the already presentness of the war in the Thomas poem in the ease of it coming up in conversation as I mention above but also in the presence of the tree which – were the war not on – would have already been moved. Also I suppose as the protagonists is not a soldier and so symbolically doesn’t disrupt the scene. I’m  not sure about the use of the language, if it would have been alien to a poetry reading public of the 1910s, though I agree that it roots the poem in the rural, in their world.

Another aspect to discuss in the role of the lovers, which like the ploughshare, frames the poem though less directly. The lovers leave and are left. Although like the timelessness of the ploughing the lovers could be said to be a reassuring presence. Both reproduce; one the land and the other the country. Despite the war the basic and important things are still happening: sex and farming. In other Thomas poems he laments the loss of lovers due to the war. Yet here they are fundamental. Could this be a note of optimism?

K: Really like your point about reproduction in the poem – the re-cycling of the land in process, and the lovers. Especially in light of what you read about them being reassuring – that’s exactly what it is. I had been thinking it would be simplistic to say that the lovers are some sign of hope but I do agree they suggest a feeling of reproduction, life going on, cycles continuing, all of which are reassuring. The reemergance of the lovers (“again”), and the final turn of the plough indicates a renewal – it may be another different world but the cycle continues. The fact that they’re clandestine lovers rather than a young married couple (or something else more formerly expressed) evokes a lighter, optimistic and pleasant feeling too I think. A full cycle taking place across the poem, as with the land. I think they really do frame the poem because – although I know you said “the lovers leave and are left” , I actually think they are in the background to the whole poem, which is why it maintains a certain lightness in spite of the war subject. Close to the end of the first stanza we’re reminded of the lovers: “Scraping the share he faced towards the wood” – where we know they are.

The place and position of the writer is intriguing as well – it took me several read throughs to ascertain whether he was a stranger/interloper or whether he was from the area, and I’m still not quite sure! He knows of the tree (it’s the ploughman who asks when they will take it away) but his situation isn’t habitual – I don’t get the impression he makes a habit of watching this process. The dialogue in the second stanza only reinforces that confusion – it’s hard to work out straight away who is saying what, and the unbroken dialogue quickens the pace of the otherwise gently ambling poem, reflecting the increasing tenseness of the topic. For me, this passage – it’s confusion and it’s blunt, fast phrasing  all adds to a general feeling I get from the poem that things are out of sorts, and they fumbling to react to that change: the fallen tree breaking up the farm’s boundaries, the blizzard, the war, the fact that they can’t clearly “see all.” And yet, as you say, the war is integrated, and connected to the rhythms of the land, rather than centre-stage, which makes the exchange seem lighter and the war less dominating. At once the connection between the farm and the war it is both totally specific and pendantic, and at the same time profound – “everything/would have been different. For it would have been/Another world.” It’s like there’s this theme of indifference to the war (the conversation begins with pleasantries about the weather, then the war. The war is linked to the moving of a fallen tree, an ironic irritation that lack of available man power is preventing its removal) but talk of other, better worlds, that can’t be perceived clearly (with the blizzard and the fallen tree being the natural metaphor?) is incredibly profound and ties with a broader theme of traditional life changing, and the impossibility of truly comprehending these changes as they happen.

B: Yes! Couldn’t put it any better. In the Macfarlane book mentioned above he discerns Thomas’ true subjects as “disconnection, discrepacy and unsettledness.” I think your points echo this, though I think we agree that this isn’t the whole story, that there is more than an hint of hope. At the time of writing Thomas had just accepted a commission to go to fight in France. He was in his late 30s and so didn’t have to fight, he chose to. There is some doubt over if this was for a pension and thus security or due to Thomas’ feeling of duty. Macfarlane holds that it was the later and that Thomas was “slowly growing into a conscious Englishman.” Most likely would be some mix.  Thomas is perhaps unusal as a poet in that he only started writing poetry well into his 30s and in fact the vast majority of his poetic output was written after the decision to enlist. His output was prodigious, writing 60 poems in 55 days in 1916. Talking of Thomas’ letters from the front his wife Helen says that he was  “delighting in what beauty there is there, he finds beauty where no one else would find it….” Thomas was killed in April, and like the mate of the farmer having only been in France for a number of days. This poem ends, as you say, with ambiguity with an instance on reserving judgement because although “If we could see all all might seem good” we can’t. We are always limited, our view of the world is fundamentally subjective, we cannot take all paths, we must pick one. Given this, we would do well to remember the opening lines of a new poem that was found in Thomas pocket on the day he died – “Where any turn may lead to heaven/ Or any corner may hide hell/ Roads shining like river up hill after rain.”

1 In a rather nice bit of quasi-serendipity Wandsworth is actually where Thomas lived for a number of years, before he started writing poetry.

two : E. Thomas – As the Team’s Head Brass

E. Thomas – As the Team’s Head Brass (1916)

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away?’
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out?’ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps?’
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost?’ ‘Yes: a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

one : S. Heaney – In a Field. Responses.

K: I love how the poem covers just one moment in time in really evocative detail – it starts off a recollection of that moment, since it’s written in the past tense, but it feels like it’s happening right at that moment. And by the end it’s in the present tense “Where everyone has suddenly appeared, All standing waiting.”

B: First off I just wanted to say how much I like this poem. Having read and re-read and re-re-read it I am entranced. But to specifics. The use of varying tense is very clever and slightly disconcerting. He seems to move through tenses as the poem progresses, finally arriving – as you indicate – in the present. He moves from past continuous (“And there I was in the middle of a field”), to past perfect (“The windings had been ploughed, furrows turned”), to simple past (“The long healed footprints of one who arrived”) to present continuous (“To stumble from the windings’ magic ring”). It is like the poem is moving as we read it, or perhaps rather is mirroring our reading, managing to end up with us in the present so for a second we are are there, standing waiting, whilst our 15second ago self is, like the author back in a field in the past continuous. The poem itself having interrupting us, like the “one who arrives” does to the author. Will try and explain this more, any thoughts?

K: Yeah that’s fascinating – you’re right but I hadn’t been able to crystallise that in terms of the different tenses used as you have, but absolutely.  And I’d just like to say how much I love this poem too! It’s been with us a while and it just grows and grows. Reading it again, to me it almost seems like Heaney is writing as though he’s behind us at our shoulder, pointing out where we are and where we should be looking and how the scene is playing out. It definitely has a feeling of abrupt interruption, too. I mean, the close detail of the windings draws us down and grounds us in the moment, and then – perhaps this is going too far – but this time reading it again it was the phrase “Within that boundary now” that is standing out. Its enjambment (hehe) is, I think, significant because isolated it’s like a direction to us – we’re inside that moment in the boundary now, the moment is happening to us too. I’m not sure that really addresses your last point though, because I can’t really add to it!

B: I think we have come to similar conclusions, as I go on to say later about how that line is written as command. We are there and being told to step and then to take his hand. We are at once in the position of the one who arrived and are arriving after him (“follow the long healed foot-print”). I like the use of detail to draw us in, so situate the place clearly as you mention. And the idea that Heaney is directing our attention. We all play many roles, Heaney as both directing our glance, surveying the scene and leading us, but then being led by us and the arriver, submitting in the end. Such writing!

K: It’s interesting and effective that the field itself seems to be living – Heaney uses words like “flesh” and “breathing land”, and talks about “bruising” the field, all human terms – I don’t actually know what the effect of that is, except that the whole moment seems more alive and mobile. But also knowing that it’s a war poem, and knowing that the “field” in war poetry usually conjures an idea of no mans land, war scenes, killing fields etc so perhaps Heaney is bringing it into the front of our mind that while this is just a farm field at home in Ireland, the context is war and, ultimately, death. All those words are quite evocative of a soldier’s experience. What do you think?

B: Yes that is an interesting reading. I definitely think there is some there in thinking about the descriptors of the field. I see it as perhaps as a metanymn for the country, for the UK or Ireland (are we in NI?). The farmer is maintaining it, is keeping it breathing, though his work. It is the ploughing of the land by farmers not soldiers which distinguishes the place which makes it home, safe not war.  He is re-sealling the land, containing it, protecting it (“Windings magic ring”), re-making the threshold (“to mark it off”). This, in comparison to foreign fields which are ploughed by Harvey’s “Tanks and Feet” and as you say are evocative of war and death. The arriver arriving threatens this, he crosses the threshold and “bruises” the land. He is bringing the war home, carrying it with him “In buttoned khaki and buffed army boots”. Which, relating to the points above about tense, disrupts the scene.

On a perhaps related note I was thinking about the protagonist, how did he get there? Why was he there? Did he not also bruise the land? or was he ploughed around? He is of the place, refers to “our back field” and “the same old gate.” Not sure if there is much in this but it caught my attention.

K: I don’t know if I felt this way instinctively or whether I actually read it somewhere and now can’t fully recall it (typical me) but I feel like the protagonist is a young man/boy, and the returning soldier is someone in his family or close to it. In my mind he’s there on a wander – the soldier bruises where the boy doesn’t because of his stature in the boy’s mind – “long-heeled”, “Buttoned khaki and buffed army boots”, it’s all hard and imposing. Being taken by the hand to where everyone is waiting.

B: This is a very interesting point about interpretation I think. Most commentary on this poem seems to follow your reading, a demobbed solider taking a young child by the hand. Some, like in the Irish Times go further, reading personal memory into the poem, positioning Heany as the protagonist and the returning solider as his Aunts husband Joyce who “leave[s] footprints on the freshly ploughed field. They are the marks of the larger, adult world on the closed circle of childhood.” The Times references a poem from 2006 called Mick Joyce in Heaven in which Joyce is seen in his “brass buttoned drab” and as a “demobbed Achilles.”

This is a very different poem, a hymn for Joyce, “Prince of the Sandpiles”, and while I can certainly see the connection I think the directness of the comparison is a little much. Especially about the youth of the protagonist, are we getting that from being lead by the hand? I’m not sure. It would hold well with my points above, and yours, seeing the field as home, as safe, as an idyll, and so innocent and a place for youth. Yet something about the inital description makes me consider the waiter as old as, having been waiting for a long time. They speak of what furrows “once” were called, and describe in detail the process of ploughing, with an air of having seen it before, of having lived it for years “last of the jobs”. Perhaps the arriver brings out the child in the man, the imposition and interruption stuns them, they having only aged in time not experience? Could probably talk of this one poem for another few weeks!

K: That’s some great stuff! Very convincing thoughts on the age of the protagonist. It is definitely mixed and fluid in that sense – there are childlike descriptors that I can’t ignore, but yet you’re right about the maturity of many of the others. You just know that with Heaney nothing at all, no word, is wasted or left ambiguous without a purpose – such writing as you say! I think it must be an intentional duality, ambiguity – like with the switching tenses – it’s more and more vantage points through which to be present in the moment. Is that a cop-out?! I think even when we move on to other poems we will continue to ponder this one so maybe more clarity to come!

K: also think it’s significant the use of negatives in the poem, but again I’m not sure what the effect is! So there’s “unexpected speed”, “From nowhere, unfamiliar and de-mobbed” – I guess the only think I can think of at the moment is that it adds a bit of emphasis to the image if you are translating a term into its opposite….like you skim over the words if they were straight forward, like “fast” or whatever. It adds a bit of drama to the moment perhaps because it’s slightly unexpected – or maybe we just use a lot of negatives, like I just did!

B: Not sure I can add much to this other than agree with you about the emphasis of the image, and how it would read differently if it were “de-mobbed and unfamiliar.” The phrasing, especially in the second half, is very interesting. This: “Within that boundary now / Step the fleshy earth and follow / The long healed footprints of one who arrived” It is written almost like a command, like an address. Do you think that is how it is to be read or if it is something more like “From within…” It’s intriguing. I would like to read an essay/book on how to read poetry. Perhaps we could do that here too because I am a little at a loss! To learn how to read for form, image, tone, language, idea, image etc… by reading poetry and reading how to read poetry.

K: Agreed on that! Had a browse and there are plenty of options – will check at home for something suitable, JJPQuinn will have a few 🙂

one : S. Heaney – In a Field

S. Heaney – In a Field (2013)

And there I was in the middle of a field,
The furrows once called “scores’ still with their gloss,
The tractor with its hoisted plough just gone
Snarling at an unexpected speed
Out on the road. Last of the jobs,
The windings had been ploughed, furrows turned
Three ply or four round each of the four sides
Of the breathing land, to mark it off
And out. Within that boundary now
Step the fleshy earth and follow
The long healed footprints of one who arrived
From nowhere, unfamiliar and de-mobbed,
In buttoned khaki and buffed army boots,
Bruising the turned-up acres of our back field
To stumble from the windings’ magic ring
And take me by a hand to lead me back
Through the same old gate into the yard
Where everyone has suddenly appeared,
All standing waiting.

“like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

Benfrey, C (2013),‘What Seamus Heaney taught me’, The New York Review of Books, 1 September


Seamus believed that much of the craft of writing could be taught. “I can help you with that part,” he told us. “The other part is up to you.” He was a calm, unassuming presence in class, not the “great poet” at all, cautiously offering suggestions in the mode of “what if?” Mostly what he suggested was what he called surgery. “This poem could use a little surgery,” he would say. “What if you cut the first stanza?” Or, “Isn’t that last line a bit grandiloquent for the occasion? Perhaps you could do without it.”

For help with the “other part,” the un-teachable part, he recommended a book called something like The Poet’s Work, but the only time I heard him refer to it was to summon Lorca’s notion of duende, a mysterious dark fire of inspiration, a demonic rage, which, as I remember, Lorca associated with bullfighting and flamenco. When Seamus heard that I was working on Emily Dickinson he said, “Well, she had duende, didn’t she?”

He didn’t try to turn his students into copies of himself. He rarely mentioned his own poems. Instead, he tried to find poets further along the path that the student seemed to be following. One day, I brought in a poem about a couple skipping stones on a cow-pond. I remember only one line: “Mine skipped three times and burrowed in.” It wasn’t the deliberate cows (the adjective comes back) or the pond that interested him, even though his own poems are full of such pastoral props. It was the notion of divination, of trying to guess the future by how the stones struck the water. “You might look at Robert Graves’s ‘The Straw,’” he murmured, which begins:

Peace, the wild valley streaked with torrents,
A hoopoe perched on his warm rock. Then why
This tremor of the straw between my fingers?

Looking at that tercet now, I suddenly remember Heaney’s most famous lines, from “Digging”: “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests.” The pen as divining rod.

He seemed always older, wiser—the Master, as we called him. My first thought when I heard the news of his passing was, “Only seventy-four! My God, he was one of us!”