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

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 🙂

“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!”