Bloody Sunday & the Fisherman's Ghost

August 18, 2008

Seamus Heaney: This poem is called “Casuality”. It comes from Field Work which appeared in 1979.


Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, August 18th 2008. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, terror in Northern Ireland. Seamus Heaney is one of the most famous poets in the world. In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and he’s now probably the best selling English poet alive. I’m going to talk about one of his most famous poems “Casualty” with Joshua Weiner. Josh is a poet and he’s also a professor at the University of Maryland. ’m talking to him from Washington, D.C. Hi Josh.

Joshua Weiner: Hi.


Curtis Fox: So Josh, “Casualty” is not a difficult poem linguistically. There’s nothing formally difficult for us to understand. But it does requires some knowledge about the historical situation in Ireland where Heaney’s from.


Joshua Weiner: That’s right. The poems set in the northern province of Auster in 1972. That’s the infamous year of Bloody Sunday.


Curtis Fox: And Bloody Sunday was a massacre by British soldiers of —


Joshua Weiner: British army killed 13 Civil Rights protesters on the Bogside area of Derry City.


[Bloody Sunday — U2 playing]


Curtis Fox: Most people will have heard of Bloody Sunday through the U2 song.


Joshua Weiner: Yeah, whether they realize it or not.


Curtis Fox: That’s the background. It’s set right after that takes place, right?


Joshua Weiner: Right. One of the things you have to know is there are very fierce tensions running through Northern Ireland at this time. There are curfews, there are bombings, it’s a dangerous place.


Curtis Fox: We have a recording of Seamus Heaney reading this poem, and it’s from the internet poetry archive. I’m not going to play the whole poem all at once, we’re going to stop and start and I’ll ask you questions as we go along. Then listeners, if they want to hear the whole poem without our interruptions, can go to the poetry archive afterward. The poem begins with a description of a fisherman drinking in a bar.


Seamus Heaney: He would drink by himself   

And raise a weathered thumb   

Towards the high shelf,   

Calling another rum   

And blackcurrant, without   

Having to raise his voice,   

Or order a quick stout   

By a lifting of the eyes   

And a discreet dumb-show   

Of pulling off the top;   

At closing time would go   

In waders and peaked cap   

Into the showery dark,   

A dole-kept breadwinner   

But a natural for work.   

I loved his whole manner,   

Sure-footed but too sly,   

His deadpan sidling tact,   

His fisherman’s quick eye   

And turned observant back.   


Curtis Fox: That’s a wonderful line that last line. “And turned observant back”.


Joshua Weiner: It’s a marvelous detail. His back is turn but the intelligence is sensitive to what’s going on around him. Heaney caught a lot of criticism by moving to the south of Ireland. This was a controversial move. It seemed to people in Ireland as if he were turning his back on political commitment.

Curtis Fox: He got a lot of criticism for that, and still continues to this day I think.


Joshua Weiner: That’s one of the threads or tones that’s running through this poems.


Curtis Fox: The situation is here he is getting drunk or ordering drinks at a bar, and then he goes —


Seamus Heaney: Into the showery dark,   

A dole-kept breadwinner   

But a natural for work.


Curtis Fox: He’s going from the bar to work.


Joshua Weiner: Yeah, he’s a night fisherman. The key phrase there is “a natural for work”. That’s what Heaney finds admirable about the fisherman.


Curtis Fox: The second stanza goes into the poet’s relationship with this fisherman, and the awkwardness that the poet feels about being a poet around this fisherman. Here’s the second stanza, also set in the bar.


Seamus Heaney: Incomprehensible   

To him, my other life.   

Sometimes, on the high stool,   

Too busy with his knife   

At a tobacco plug   

And not meeting my eye,   

In the pause after a slug   

He mentioned poetry.   

We would be on our own   

And, always politic   

And shy of condescension,   

I would manage by some trick   

To switch the talk to eels   

Or lore of the horse and cart   

Or the Provisionals.   


Curtis Fox: Now who are the Provisionals?


Joshua Weiner: That’s the militant branch of the IRA.


Curtis Fox: The guys who are calling in bomb threats and blowing up bombs.


Joshua Weiner: That’s right. On behalf of the Independence Movement in Ireland.


Curtis Fox: Then the next stanza is a shocker.


Seamus Heaney: But my tentative art   

His turned back watches too:   

He was blown to bits   

Out drinking in a curfew   

Others obeyed, three nights   

After they shot dead   

The thirteen men in Derry.   

PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,   

BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday   

Everyone held   

His breath and trembled.


Curtis Fox: That’s the reference to the Bloody Sunday massacre.


Joshua Weiner: That’s right. Paras Thirteen, Bogside NIL. In other words, the Paras military. It’s really the British army, but that’s what Heaney’s calling them. He’s picking up that colloquialism from the streets.

Curtis Fox: Bogside being Northern Ireland Catholics.


Joshua Weiner: That’s right. It’s like a football match.


Curtis Fox: It’s like a football score up on the wall.


Joshua Weiner: Violent politics has become a very grim type of sport.


Curtis Fox: He’s describing three days later after the Bloody Sunday massacre, the guy goes out on a night of a curfew and gets blown to bits. Is the implication here that he was blown up by an IRA bomb, one of his own?

Joshua Weiner: It’s ambiguous but yes. It remains ambiguous throughout the poem, but the suggestion is consistent throughout the poem as well. He’s a casualty, and Heaney’s playing off the root meanings there as well.

Curtis Fox: The root meanings of casual and casualty.

Joshua Weiner: He’s a casual casualty. In other words, he’s not directly involved with the political struggle there.


Curtis Fox: He’s just a fisherman. There’s no implication in the poem that he’s a militant.


Joshua Weiner: Definitely not. In that way, the fisherman also reflects Heaney’s own position as someone who’s observing but someone who’s also on the side of things yet belongs to the tribe and is complicit in the actions of the tribe. That’s really one of the deep questions that the poem asks, and asks explicitly in the second section.


Curtis Fox: Let’s get to that section. This is the description of the mass funeral of the 13 killed on Bloody Sunday.


Seamus Heaney: It was a day of cold   

Raw silence, wind-blown   

surplice and soutane:   

Rained-on, flower-laden   

Coffin after coffin   

Seemed to float from the door   

Of the packed cathedral   

Like blossoms on slow water.   

The common funeral   

Unrolled its swaddling band,   

Lapping, tightening   

Till we were braced and bound   

Like brothers in a ring.   


Curtis Fox: All of the sudden we have this communal bonding experience at the funeral. It reminded me a little bit of seeing pictures of Palestinians on TV, the way they react after somebody has been killed and they carry them through the streets. This really intense sense of communal bonding.


Joshua Weiner: That’s right. Heaney’s building on one of the intense conceits that builds through the poem. It’s the water. The first part is the liquid, he’s drinking in the bar. Now the streets themselves are figured as bodies of running water.


Curtis Fox: And the coffins float from the door out of the packed cathedral. And the next stanza goes back to our fisherman and his death.


Seamus Heaney: But he would not be held   

At home by his own crowd   

Whatever threats were phoned,   

Whatever black flags waved.   

I see him as he turned   

In that bombed offending place,   

Remorse fused with terror   

In his still knowable face,   

His cornered outfaced stare   

Blinding in the flash.   


Curtis Fox: So Heaney is reimagining the moment of his death, of encountering that bomb and what his face must have looked like.


Seamus Heaney: But he would not be held   

At home by his own crowd


Curtis Fox: He’s referring there that the IRA often when it planted a bomb would call in threats so people would clear a specific area and know not to go there.


Joshua Weiner: People would know. The fisherman here is defiant of the curfew. He wants his pint. That’s not just an expression of his stubbornness or even of his thirst, but of his independence too from the tribal complicity. He won’t be a part of it.

Curtis Fox: That’s explained very clearly in the next stanza that goes into his drinking habits.


Seamus Heaney: He had gone miles away   

For he drank like a fish   

Nightly, naturally   

Swimming towards the lure   

Of warm lit-up places,   

The blurred mesh and murmur   

Drifting among glasses   

In the gregarious smoke.   


Curtis Fox: That’s kind of marvellous. “He drank like a fish”; he’s turning the cliché into a metaphor. The fisherman himself becomes like a fish.


Joshua Weiner: Yeah, he re-enlivens the cliché by turning it into a fresh figure for the rest of the poem.


Curtis Fox: Here’s the rest of that stanza.


Seamus Heaney: How culpable was he   

That last night when he broke   

Our tribe’s complicity?   

‘Now, you’re supposed to be   

An educated man,’   

I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me   

The right answer to that one.’


Joshua Weiner: The fisherman breaks in and dialogue. It’s a great dramatic moment in the poem where Heaney asks a rhetorical question and then the fisherman gets to break in in his own language.


Curtis Fox: What does he mean by that? “How culpable was he?” Was he to blame for getting himself blown up? Was it his own damn fault, in other words?

Joshua Weiner: That’s the question. And there are other questions underneath the questions. Questions about belonging, tribal intimacies and tribal understandings. The decisions, the negotiations that one makes for oneself have real consequences.


Curtis Fox: The last part of the poem begins with a description of the fisherman’s funeral, which Heaney didn’t attend.


Seamus Heaney: I missed his funeral,   

Those quiet walkers   

And sideways talkers   

Shoaling out of his lane   

To the respectable   

Purring of the hearse...   

They move in equal pace   

With the habitual   

Slow consolation   

Of a dawdling engine,   

The line lifted, hand   

Over fist, cold sunshine   

On the water, the land   

Banked under fog: that morning   

I was taken in his boat,   


Curtis Fox: Let me interrupt here to note the sudden shift. All the sudden, we’re at the hearse going from the hearse, and the hearse becomes in this poem the fisherman’s boat and a memory that Heaney has of going out with the fisherman in his boat.


Joshua Weiner: Yeah. It’s a seamless conflation between the one and the other.


Curtis Fox: Let’s back up a little and hear that.


Seamus Heaney: They move in equal pace   

With the habitual   

Slow consolation   

Of a dawdling engine,   

The line lifted, hand   

Over fist, cold sunshine   

On the water, the land   

Banked under fog: that morning   

I was taken in his boat,  

The Screw purling,


Curtis Fox:— “The screw purling” that would be the rotors of the baot, right?


Joshua Weiner: Right.


Seamus Heaney: The Screw purling, turning   

Indolent fathoms white,   

I tasted freedom with him.   

To get out early, haul   

Steadily off the bottom,   

Dispraise the catch, and smile   

As you find a rhythm   

Working you, slow mile by mile,   

Into your proper haunt   

Somewhere, well out, beyond...   


Dawn-sniffing revenant,   

Plodder through midnight rain,   

Question me again.


Curtis Fox: Heaney seems to be saying very explicitly here that what the fisherman does is a lot like what he’s doing as a poet.


Seamus Heaney: To get out early, haul   

Steadily off the bottom,


Curtis Fox: The bottom of the unconscious one would think.

Joshua Weiner: And they’re both working with lines. This is another aspect, the fisherman’s physical life with his tools that Heaney identifies with.


Curtis Fox: And you catch something but you dispraise the catch.


Joshua Weiner: Dispraise the catch. Heaney for all his world renown he’s very modest. He is continually demonstrating proper dispraise for his work. Matter of fact, he’s one of the most praised poets in the English speaking world. For good reasons, for pieces like this one.


Curtis Fox: The place where you go fishing for poems is, he’s saying in this one —


Seamus Heaney: proper haunt   

Somewhere, well out, beyond


Curtis Fox: In other words, maybe away from the troubles.

Joshua Weiner: Away from the troubles, away from received opinion. Poets are often seeking not just positions of resistance or opposition but vantage points from which they can see things more clearly. One of the things that Heaney’s been paying attention to here is his place, the place of the fisherman but also the place of others like themselves in relation to really dominating social forces that are running through Northern Ireland.


Curtis Fox: Thanks so much Josh.

Joshua Weiner: Thank you.


Curtis Fox: Joshua Weiner’s latest book of poems is From The Book of Giants published by the University of Chicago Press. “Casualty” is collected in Open Ground: The Selected Poems of Seamus Heaney published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The recording of Heaney reading his poem can be found in the internet poetry archive. We always want to hear what you think of this program, write a review in the iTunes store or email us at [email protected]. The music used in this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

How Seamus Heaney defines Ireland's 1972 troubles with a portrait of a drunken seaman blown up in a pub.

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