Singing School

By Seamus Heaney 1939–2013 Seamus Heaney

Fair seedtime had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear;
Much favoured in my birthplace, and no less
In that beloved Vale to which, erelong,
I was transplanted ...
—WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, The Prelude

He [the stable-boy] had a book of Orange rhymes, and the days when we read them together in the hay-loft gave me the pleasure of rhyme for the first time. Later on I can remember being told, when there was a rumour of a Fenian rising, that rifles were being handed out to the Orangemen; and presently, when I began to dream of my future life, I thought I would like to die fighting the Fenians.
W. B. YEATS, Autobiographies

1. The Ministry of Fear

       for Seamus Deane

Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived   
In important places. The lonely scarp
Of St Columb’s College, where I billeted   
For six years, overlooked your Bogside.
I gazed into new worlds: the inflamed throat   
Of Brandywell, its floodlit dogtrack,   
The throttle of the hare. In the first week   
I was so homesick I couldn’t even eat   
The biscuits left to sweeten my exile.   
I threw them over the fence one night   
In September 1951
When the lights of houses in the Lecky Road   
Were amber in the fog. It was an act   
Of stealth.
                  Then Belfast, and then Berkeley.
Here’s two on’s are sophisticated,
Dabbling in verses till they have become   
A life: from bulky envelopes arriving   
In vacation time to slim volumes
Despatched `with the author’s compliments’.
Those poems in longhand, ripped from the wire spine   
Of your exercise book, bewildered me—
Vowels and ideas bandied free
As the seed-pods blowing off our sycamores.   
I tried to write about the sycamores
And innovated a South Derry rhyme
With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled.   
Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain   
Were walking, by God, all over the fine   
Lawns of elocution.
                              Have our accents
Changed? ‘Catholics, in general, don’t speak
As well as students from the Protestant schools.’   
Remember that stuff? Inferiority
Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on.   
‘What’s your name, Heaney?’
                                          ‘Heaney, Father.’
                                                                     ‘Fair
Enough.’
             On my first day, the leather strap
Went epileptic in the Big Study,
Its echoes plashing over our bowed heads,
But I still wrote home that a boarder’s life
Was not so bad, shying as usual.

On long vacations, then, I came to life   
In the kissing seat of an Austin 16
Parked at a gable, the engine running,   
My fingers tight as ivy on her shoulders,   
A light left burning for her in the kitchen.   
And heading back for home, the summer’s   
Freedom dwindling night by night, the air   
All moonlight and a scent of hay, policemen   
Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowding round   
The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing
The muzzle of a Sten gun in my eye:   
‘What’s your name, driver?’
                                          ‘Seamus ...’
                                                         Seamus?
They once read my letters at a roadblock
And shone their torches on your hieroglyphics,   
‘Svelte dictions’ in a very florid hand.

Ulster was British, but with no rights on   
The English lyric: all around us, though   
We hadn’t named it, the ministry of fear.


2. A Constable Calls

His bicycle stood at the window-sill,   
The rubber cowl of a mud-splasher   
Skirting the front mudguard,
Its fat black handlegrips

Heating in sunlight, the ‘spud’
Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back,   
The pedal treads hanging relieved
Of the boot of the law.

His cap was upside down
On the floor, next his chair.
The line of its pressure ran like a bevel   
In his slightly sweating hair.

He had unstrapped
The heavy ledger, and my father   
Was making tillage returns
In acres, roods, and perches.

Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster   
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord   
Looped into the revolver butt.

‘Any other root crops?
Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?’   
‘No.’ But was there not a line
Of turnips where the seed ran out

In the potato field? I assumed
Small guilts and sat
Imagining the black hole in the barracks.   
He stood up, shifted the baton-case

Farther round on his belt,
Closed the domesday book,
Fitted his cap back with two hands,   
And looked at me as he said goodbye.

A shadow bobbed in the window.   
He was snapping the carrier spring   
Over the ledger. His boot pushed off   
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.


3. Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966

The lambeg balloons at his belly, weighs
Him back on his haunches, lodging thunder
Grossly there between his chin and his knees.   
He is raised up by what he buckles under.

Each arm extended by a seasoned rod,
He parades behind it. And though the drummers   
Are granted passage through the nodding crowd,   
It is the drums preside, like giant tumours.

To every cocked ear, expert in its greed,
His battered signature subscribes ‘No Pope’.
The goatskin’s sometimes plastered with his blood.   
The air is pounding like a stethoscope.


4. Summer 1969

While the Constabulary covered the mob   
Firing into the Falls, I was suffering
Only the bullying sun of Madrid.
Each afternoon, in the casserole heat
Of the flat, as I sweated my way through   
The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket   
Rose like the reek off a flax-dam.
At night on the balcony, gules of wine,
A sense of children in their dark corners,
Old women in black shawls near open windows,   
The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.
We talked our way home over starlit plains   
Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil   
Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.

‘Go back,’ one said, ‘try to touch the people.’   
Another conjured Lorca from his hill.
We sat through death-counts and bullfight reports   
On the television, celebrities
Arrived from where the real thing still happened.

I retreated to the cool of the Prado.   
Goya’s ‘Shootings of the Third of May’   
Covered a wall—the thrown-up arms   
And spasm of the rebel, the helmeted   
And knapsacked military, the efficient   
Rake of the fusillade. In the next room,
His nightmares, grafted to the palace wall—
Dark cyclones, hosting, breaking; Saturn   
Jewelled in the blood of his own children,   
Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips   
Over the world. Also, that holmgang
Where two berserks club each other to death   
For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.
He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished
The stained cape of his heart as history charged.


5. Fosterage

       for Michael McLaverty

‘Description is revelation!’ Royal
Avenue, Belfast, 1962,
A Saturday afternoon, glad to meet
Me, newly cubbed in language, he gripped   
My elbow. ‘Listen. Go your own way.
Do your own work. Remember
Katherine Mansfield—I will tell
How the laundry basket squeaked ... that note of exile.’   
But to hell with overstating it:
‘Don’t have the veins bulging in your Biro.’   
And then, ‘Poor Hopkins!’ I have the Journals
He gave me, underlined, his buckled self   
Obeisant to their pain. He discerned
The lineaments of patience everywhere
And fostered me and sent me out, with words   
Imposing on my tongue like obols.


6. Exposure

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 clingstone   
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 conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions   
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;   
An inner émigré, 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.

Seamus Heaney, “Singing School” from Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996. Copyright © 1998 by Seamus Heaney. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998)

 Seamus  Heaney

Biography

Seamus Heaney is widely recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century. A native of Northern Ireland, Heaney was raised in County Derry, and later lived for many years in Dublin. He was the author of over 20 volumes of poetry and criticism, and edited several widely used anthologies. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the . . .

Continue reading this biography

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.