by Mark Tredinnick
Just as I was posting this, the news came through. And it changes everything. Just another death. But what a death! What a life ended. Half the words in the world seem suddenly to have gone. I can’t write a word on poetry without lighting a candle first and walking some kind of a vigil into the midnight.
Seamus Heaney, who can never possibly die, has died. His leaving leaves us poorer, rich though his life was in beauty and wisdom, grace and humour, kindness and accomplishment. What will we do without him? Remember him. Read him, over and over. Grieve him. He was the best of us. He was what poetry is for.
In Oxford this year, I saw Seamus Heaney standing in the lobby of his hotel. When I might have said hello, I left him alone; he seemed to need his solitude more than my praise. Then, in the Sheldonian, that night, after I heard him read, he looked at me as if he recognised me. It snowed and snowed in Oxford that day and the next. And I feel now as if I failed at something he, in himself and his work, succeeded at so effortlessly. Some grace. Some modest, sure being in the world.
Something has been wrong in me all day today, and now I know what. Seamus Heaney has died, and the world beyond one’s knowing knew it all day long. A bell we can’t do without has stopped tolling.
But he leaves poems, which will never stop; he leaves his work, his translation of Beowulf, of Sophocles, his wonderful prose on poetry — he leaves more of a life, so well lived, and more immemorial work than anyone could hope to. We must remember how much he made right just by being here and witnessing and saying the unsayable so calmly and with such loving restraint.
Read poems and read them well. Remember this beautiful man and carry on his work as well as you can.
If it is hard to say what a poem is and what a poem is for, it’s harder yet to speak of the spiritual life: what it is and what it’s for, and how poetry can help.
Unless perhaps it is the spiritual life (which is, I think, one’s real life, the self you know when no one’s looking — the life you lead deeper down than your social life or work life or familial life or intellectual life) that poetry chiefly exists to articulate, to license us to have, to forgive us for having, and to fleetingly coagulate into something like an embodiment of what it was on earth you felt you were here to know and do.
I think, as David Malouf has one of his characters say in The Great World, each human life is made of what poetry is made of — each life at any other moment may, if she stopped and noticed, feel to its owner multiple, contradictory, lost, yearning, grieving, hoping, despairing, remembering, thinking, feeling, ecstatic and confused; it might seem a mystery, a multitude, a foreign country in which one suddenly finds oneself. But although we are made of poetry, though we live in it, poetry is not what most of us call it, and even among those who do, not everyone can write it up into a poem and know it for what it is, and this is why we need the poets and their poems: to bring that poetic confusion, which everyone’s lives are made of (our lives within and our lives in the world beyond our senses and beyond our power to understand) — to bring that poetic confusion to something like repose, a point, a stillness; to make over the lyric chaos of each life into a small country, a language world, a place, in which for a moment we might rest, not content, but forgiven.
It has often been said, to put this another way, that poetry says what everyone feels, but few know how to say. The power to tell the secret life of any human heart seems to depend on gift and grace, but also on the beautiful disciplines of form and prosody, and upon what one might think of as spiritual intelligence. These things come together in the best poems and the best poets: Dickinson, Heaney, Hopkins, Sappho, Sexton, Blake, Rumi, Mirabai, Jeffers, several of the Thomases and Wrights. Just to make a start.
I’m thinking these thoughts in the wake of the awarding of the first ACU Prize for Literature in Fitzroy the other night, a prize for a poem articulating “everyday immanence”; and as I prepare some words to speak at the unveiling of this year’s shortlist for the Blake Poetry Prize in a mid September. My poem “Light Years” came in second the other night, and I’m very grateful for that, and thankful to the university for sponsoring a prize for, in essence, poetry of the spirit. (And don’t tell them but any poetry worth reading, is a poetry of the spirit — see above and below.) Stephen Edgar’s wise, sad, accomplished meditation on illness, survival, loss and eternity, “The Dancer”, took the first prize, and his phrase “a sudden presence” gives the anthology of the shortlisted poems its title; that phrase also speaks very nearly to what “everyday immanence” might mean. Jenny Pollak’s poem, “The White Rabbit”, though very different, is, like Edgar’s, a poem of imminent death, of hospital wards, of industrial healthcare and the “sudden presence” of some falling light, something like a god, the ghost in the machine of a long moment. My own poem is not a poem of crisis. Not of rapid crisis, anyway. It is a pastoral set down, as Rumi phrases it somewhere, in a field beyond good and evil, and it is flooded almost to breaking with light, and its ease is troubled, as all ease properly is, by the knowledge that all this apparent happiness is contingent, that it will pass, that love tends to fray, notwithstanding, that there might have been another life, and that the balm of the autumn day owes a fair bit of its glamour to global warming.
Every good poem says more than it knows, and way more than it means. And perhaps this is true of all three of the poems Kevin Hart picked out. Certainly, I think it’s true of mine. There is more in that poem than I put in it; there’s more time, for one thing; and there’s way more weather; I sense in it what Edgar calls, in his poem, a presence, which I did not put there, but which my poem seems to have captured anyway. Sometimes a poem articulates the very kissness of a kiss, the genius of a place, the moral of a moment—the otherness of things. And that otherness, the inscape of things, the mystery within the matter, the other life within and beyond and under things, the way a moment is much more than we know, and much more than it seems: this may be most of what we mean by the spiritual dimension of reality.
To say what a poem’s about is to say next to nothing about the poem. A poem is not its setting, nor its thesis, nor its subject matter, nor its music, nor its story. Most of what it means is what it is, not what it speaks about. What a poem is is how it sounds, and how it goes and how it looks and what it implies and how it leaves you changed. The place, as mysterious and multiple as any actual place, it seems to be. A place you can enter and explore — a place where you can dwell — but can never get to the end of.
Many poets and thinkers have written well about all this, but I have long admired the way Mark Strand goes about it in one of the essays in The Weather of Words. And I would have paraphrased them when I stood to collect my cheque last Wednesday night, if I had felt calmer up there. Good poems have “a lyric identity beyond whatever their subject happens to be,” Strand writes. They seem almost to capture “the ghost within every experience that wishes it could be seen or felt, acknowledged as a kind of meaning.” A good poem overhears the intelligence of the music of things, I have sometimes thought. A good poem has a voice (the poem’s voice, not the poet’s), and, Strand writes, “the formation of that voice, the gathering up of imagined sound into utterance, may be the true occasion” that gave rise to and also is the poem.
A poem seems to rise in the place (an ecotone between one’s singular and collective consciousness, between one’s conscious and subconscious self) where the self bleeds — under the weight, often, of love, loss, grief, ecstasy, hunger; and under the conditions of poetic apprehension — into Self: in that threshold place where poetry dwells and poets wander (outside, but not very far outside, both self and society), out beyond desire and fear, some deep apprehension (if not understanding) of reality sometimes transpires; the personal becomes (in the moment and in the poem) an instance of the human; the particular, an instance of the universal. In the poetic moment (as in meditation and dream), “I” becomes “one”, and “one” becomes “anyone”. It is never (merely) the poet’s life the poet tells; it is (no one’s life and it is) anyone’s life. What the poet writes is only ever an instance of the human condition, of the beautiful trouble we’re all finally in. It is never just this trauma or this place on earth that the poem bears witness to: it is any such suffering or any such stretch of ground.
I think it’s in this ecotone, this place a little beyond daily consciousness, beside and beyond one’s mere self, that the “imagined sound” Strand refers to gathers toward utterance, where a silence wants suddenly to be said and finds someone to say it. You can’t call it up; you just have to be there. And then you have to pick up a pen.
Write what you don’t know, the poet James Galvin has said, about what you do know. Hope that the mysteries inside and around you, your affections, afflictions and addictions, that which always eludes you in the vivid moments and places and ideas, in the relationships that will not stop haunting you — hope that what eludes you in what you love will find its way into your poem. For poems are made for, poems are made of, mysteries.
And the particular words of Mark Strand’s I wish I’d spoken last Wednesday night in Fitzroy were these: “the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable” in a poem. A poem, gives form to inward experience — to the underworld of our lives, the bits (the larger part of our felt experience) that fly beneath the radar of awareness, but which we feel and deny and invent our worst behaviours to try and cope with. And a poem gives form to the inner life of outer things, the things beyond us, beyond what we can sense and comprehend in the world and in others’ lives. Through the alchemy of poetic attention and craft, the secret lives that walk around inside us and the frequencies that play through the cultures, societies and landscapes we inhabit become the terrain, the language world, sculpted utterance that is a poem.
Saying more than it says and knows, a poem is perfectly adapted for capturing what lies beyond knowledge and deep within experience. The unseen within the seen.
And so it is that poetry allows us — and these are the words I wish I had recalled — “to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living”: a wonderful, taut, generous formulation of the spiritual agency of the poem.
“Even more paradoxically,” Strand concludes, “poetry permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves.” Poetry catches us in the act of leading bigger lives, older, more complicated, than we thought we had it in us to lead. It makes us mysterious, and at the same time, known to ourselves in our otherness, as if for the first time.
There is an inner life, another life, to all of this — the way we feel and act and know; the way the world beyond our skins performs itself, touches and eludes us, daily — and it is always “just out of reach of ourselves”. The life out of reach may be what we mean by the spiritual dimension of existence — the ghost in the machine of the moment. The being inside the thing. A poem, better than any artform, since a poem partakes of them all (architecture, dance, song, story, pottery, silence, theatre), incarnates beyondness and outs the withinness of one’s self, all selves, and lets us dwell, or almost dwell, inside that which eludes and animates us, a while. A poem is a place that stills time; it orders the disorder of one inner life and lets it stand for all inner lives.
A poem speaks the poetic chaos of existence into a slow architecture of voice. And lets it stand there a while as if it were, that sculpture, that stance, our own inner life at its yoga.
And so now I appear to have written half my speech, at least, for 18 September, when this year’s shortlist for the Blake Poetry Prize will be announced.
Friday 30 August died while I wrote the last page. (And though I didn’t know it when I wrote these words the first time, Seamus Heaney had died, too.) 4 o’clock became 5; afternoon grew crepuscular and slinked off into the night. A day that began in a dentist’s chair has ended at a desk. In the middle: Debussy, Beethoven, Mark Strand, a sick child, a good deal, a hungry dog, a tranche of emails, a soft voice, a broken phone, and a mind that put itself together again out of anaesthesia and made itself up making sentences against a deadline.
This has turned out to be the kind of month I warned Tessa at the start it would be. But because I had to, I got these blog entries written and posted. And they have been, as writing always is for me, the best thing I’ve done all month.
I can’t, of course, speak for you. But they have done for me, making them, what Keats said poetry was for: they have helped me make, remake endlessly (which is the real gig, for the making never ceases), my soul. And writing these pieces has handed me the phone and put me in touch with people I know and people I may never meet all over the place. And the talk has been big, not small. The way it should be more often. But still it has been talk — not disquisition, I hope.
For years, in my teaching, and in my writing guide The Little Red Writing Book, I’ve tried to convince writers that writing is an act of speech performed on paper; and since it is, it goes best when you write with benign disregard for who exactly your reader is but without for a moment losing sight of them, and without forgetting the humanity you share with them. Writing, that act of speech, is a relationship, a profoundly human act. Transacted in language, and about many things, but most of all the making of meaning. And writing works best — it works only — when it remembers its humanity and its listener, and speaks. Writing should be the best conversation you never heard. Write, I keep saying, as if you were speaking with someone you love about something you know.
Writing is talking, heightened by art and set down on paper. But it goes best when you perform it as if you really were talking and someone (your better self, maybe) really were listening. Essayists have always written this way: E B White, Charmian Clift, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Alistair Cooke. And it’s how I’ve tried to write my essays and books of nonfiction, too. (Poetry is a much slower, more oracular, high octane kind of talking, subject to more of the conditions of love and art and song and architecture and liturgy and magic, but still it’s an act of speech.)
Since losing my way into Facebook late last year, I’ve found, a little to my surprise, that when I post I convince myself much faster and more fully of my conceit (that writing is talk tidied) than when I sit to write an essay or the of chapter of a book. And it’s felt like that this past month, too, blogging for Southerly. For you’re there, aren’t you? This is not a telephone; you’ll let me finish my sentence; you’ll let me form it up and weigh it up and trim it down; but you’re standing there, it seems to me, wanting each sentence as soon as I have it made. Something, in other words, about the almost-immediacy, the near intimacy of the medium turns writing into a conversation it’s not easy to forget one is having. This is not a paper I’m writing, nor is it a rant or a speech. We’re talking here; so let me talk.
I’ve found it conducive, this post-postmodern medium, to a very pre-modern discourse: the essay. Lyric essay, in my case: part cant, part chant, part chatter. Pliny wrote like this (only better, of course). Some Greeks before him. Montaigne sometime after. Jane Austen in her letters. But I have a feeling Facebook has improved me and made me a better essayist; blogging has tidied my prose; it’s tautened my sentences and loosened them, all at once. Quite possibly it helps that my prose works out in poetry’s gym; it helps that I’ve been writing all this time out of my life and out, as it were, of my mind — about ideas and practices and pursuits that I’m not turning to for the first time in front of you. But the intimacy (of voice and thought) a reader wants with a writer, and a writer must conjure with a reader — the kind of thing that fires a good conversation — is much more easily imagined and enacted on a keyboard when it’s a blog that I’m writing.
I have no doubt — and it would be just as true if I really were talking — I’ve bored some readers and exasperated others; but I know that some of you have had a good time. Either way, my guess is the writing found you, if it did, and provoked or persuade you, because it spoke. And it seems to me that electronic platforms like this will serve best writers who know they need to open their mouths, not just their minds, when they write.
But thank you for listening, at least some of the time. These posts, because I toured there earlier this year, have gone feral in Wales. I want to thank Carly and Charlotte and all the Cellar Bards for liking these thinly disguised, if somewhat disheveled, poems. If ever there were a place on earth that understood how much voice counts in literature, and how much of a voice is its music, that place is southwest Wales. I know the posts have travelled New South Wales, too (Newcastle, the Harbour Bridge, Newtown, Annandale…); and Victoria, town and country; Adelaide and the Adelaide Hills; Perth and Margaret River. I (or we) have heard from readers in Toronto and Macau, Vancouver and Vancouver Island and Eugene and Portland and Ubud and Mexico. For, of course, this most local of writing forms (me and you’re here and now) is also the most global; though it lets me feel like I’m talking right now at night with you, it carries my voice at light speed everywhere else at the same time.
A blog, it turns out, is an essay gone viral; a blogger is an essayist with half the world on his knee.
A week ago at this desk, I signed a contract — still beside me, as it happens — with John Knight of Pitt Street Poetry, who will publish my next three books of poetry. I’m grateful to John for taking me on, and I’m excited by the vision, much more than merely literary and much more than merely local, he has for publishing — and not just my books. If a poem is voice embodied, a book of poems — especially a cloth-bound hardback, top and tail bands, illustrations by a wonderful painter — is a choir become a cathedral, a leaf become a forest, a feather become a flock of migratory birds. Before the year is out, Bluewren Cantos will be in the world, along with a new edition of Fire Diary, so well published in its first edition by Puncher & Wattmann.
Next week I will be in Adelaide — teaching at Flinders, reading at Friendly Street, talking on radio, conversing at the Gardens with Rachael Mead, workshopping a the SAWC and, on Friday night, helping Peter Goldsworthy (re)launch Australian Love Poems 2013. And then at the end of the week there will be an election — and God only knows who we’ll be after that.
And the energy, the spirit, the beyondness and withinness made palpable, and the kindness, that was Seamus Heaney gone out of the world.
[photos courtesy of M Tredinnick, LA Observer, and Paris Review]