WELCOME TO URTHONA

URTHONA Buddhist arts journal covers all aspects of contemporary and traditional arts from a Western Buddhist perspective. It is published annually in a high quality, 68 page,  glossy magazine format, and is beautifully designed.

To subscribe to the current issue, or purchase back issues go to the URTHONA SHOP page above.

This site contains selected essays and material from back issues. See page listings to right.

Urthona – the landscape: Our guardian spirits are the romantic and revolutionary writers of early 19th century London – Blake, Hazlitt and Coleridge – and the Zen poets of Japan who were similarly drawn to the open, outer reaches of mind and culture.  Our founding inspiration came from the Western Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita who has always seen the arts as a key means of spiritual transformation in the contemporary world. Here you will find essays on the arts as a means of rousing the imagination and communicating a sense of the sacred in ways that are relevant to the 21st century. More about our vision in ABOUT URTHONA above.

Scroll down this page for URTHONA editor’s blog: in depth and  insightful commentary on art, life and culture.

Issue 31 Cover

Issue 31 Cover

CURRENT ISSUE NO 31: The Art and Craft of Story Telling. Explore what this most ancient and fundamental art means to us now.

To buy your copy go to URTHONA SHOP page.

Explore some of the master narratives of European culture in fresh, insightful ways. Here you will find an interview with one of our master storytellers Kevin Crossley Holland, a piece on one of the most important stories in Western culture, the Quest for the Holy Grail, and an account of the story behind Jung’s Red Book by the acclaimed writer on art, education and imagination, Peter Abbs.

But what is storytelling really? And what has it to do with the quest for an authentic spirituality in the 21st century? Many contemporary Dharma teachers talk about ‘dropping the ego’s stories’. But what do they really mean? Do they mean us to turn off our imagination and become like a rock or a dry planet – surely not. Philip Pullman (whose new book of versions of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm is reviewed in this issue) says: ‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’ Stories are the primary way in which the imagination orientates the sum total of our available psychic energy towards one goal or another.

* Interview with master story teller Kevin Crossley-Holland. Kevin answers some in depth questions about the art and craft of story telling. Who better to explore this than one of our best loved story tellers? He has published many books of traditional folk tales, and is the author of the acclaimed Arthur Trilogy. He says: ‘Like Icelandic Sagas, folk tales move from A to Z without digression. They deal in actions not feelings. So it follows that the proper language for retelling a tale should be simple and forthright…’

* An introduction to Jung’s Red Book, the mystical source of all of his ideas. During a profound breakdown a visionary world arose before him, in which characters from the Bible, Greek Myth and the Gnostic treatises become figures of intense living power. From this arose the Red Book, a large volume that he filled with accounts of his visions. Here the noted writer on art and myth, Peter Abbs explores how this book became the source of all of Jung’s later work.

* The Wonderful graphics and book illustrations of Stefanie (Ine) Grewe. AA Lammermoor_Contract

* Quest for the Holy Grail – the romance becomes a quest for vision and transformation. Ratnagarbha looks at the oldest and most psychologically acute account of the quest for the Holy Grail by Chretien De Troyes. What has this ancient story to offer us now?

*The greatest story ever told, Dharmavadana on the wonders of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ 

* Plus poetry from Mimi Khalvati and many others, news, reviews of the music of Meg Hutchinson and a new book of poems in tribute to William Stafford, the collected poems of Geoffrey Hill, a new biography of Tove Jannson and much more.

To buy your copy go to URTHONA SHOP page.

The imaginative stimulus of ignorance….

What does it mean?

What does it mean

I have this alchemical symbol on my wall so I can see it when I meditate. I must admit this is more inspiring to me than most Buddha images would be. I have no idea what it means but that is part of the attraction. I am reminded of that old romantic idea that landscapes are more meaningful when half hidden by mist, something about giving space for the imagination to play in the gap of the unknown.

Of course poetry is often like this. When reading Geoffrey Hill, for example, rarely do I fully apprehend a definite meaning, but each of his lines is wonderfully evocative and pregnant with possible meanings….

“To mourn is to mourn; the ancient words suffice, / Latin or English, worn channels for the rain / charged and electric….”

This poem, from Without Title, is called – ‘To John Constable: In Absentia’, but who knows what relationship it has with Constable’s life…. and who care – wonderful, weighted words about grief and the need for rituals of mourning…. the doctrines of, presumably, the Latin Mass, or the Anglican Book of Common Prayer are not the point, it is the way the sound of the words falls charged into the soul….

Just posted new essay on Buddhism and the rebirth of a culture of beauty.

The face I had before the world was made: Why art, Buddhism and beauty go hand in hand – a major new essay which sets out the values behind Urthona journal of Buddhism and the Arts, a journey in the company of James Hillman, Sangharakshita and W. B. Yeats by Urthona editor, Ratnagarbha.

Ratnagarbha (Ambrose Gilson) editor of Urthona

The first book to be written from a Western perspective on the subject of Buddhism and the arts was Art and Meditation, by the well known German devotee of Tibetan Buddhism, Lama Govinda, and originally published in 1936. In this he says:

Art and meditation are creative states of the human mind. Both are nourished by the same source, but it may seem that they are moving in different directions: art towards the realm of sense-impressions, meditation towards the overcoming of forms and sense-impressions. But the difference pertains only to accidentals, not to the essentials.1

So, appreciating or creating art is a way of working on the mind, of cultivating more insightful, expansive and grounded states of consciousness. Meditation, one might say, is the royal road to higher states of being, the mind working directly on the mind. But the arts present a very attractive, engaging means, a tool to work on our mental states by means of impressions ‘out the there’ in the world of the senses; that world to which we are all so attached, so ‘hooked up’. By means of the arts we use this attraction outwards to draw us into a world of meaningfully arranged forms, a world of beauty and significance, which partakes equally of the inner and outer life, and reminds us of who we truly are. This simultaneous movement: towards external sense impressions imbued with a sense of inner purpose and significance is precisely what the arts can do at their best….

Read the rest of the essay on our Culture and Society pages:

What the Silence Meant – Poems and Music that Celebrate Stillness and Listening

The cover of Meg Hutchinson's new album 'Beyond That'. Available from www.meghutchinson.com

The cover of Meg Hutchinson’s new album ‘Beyond That’. Available from http://www.meghutchinson.com

Simon Millward looks at a new book of poems ‘in conversation’ with the late, great American poet William Stafford, and the music of Meg Hutchinson. Both of these artists show a strong feeling for silence and the value of listening…

In the last issue of Urthona there was an article entitled ‘Hearing the wilderness listen’, taken from an essay written by Manjusvara that looked closely at William Stafford’s poem ‘Travelling through the dark’. It is strange how things can interconnect unexpectedly. I read this article again at a time when I had become increasingly interested in the albums of an American folk singer songwriter Meg Hutchinson. On her website I discovered that she also loved poetry, quoting William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Yeats and Frost among her influences, as well as Greg Brown and Joni Mitchell on the music side. Moreover she had just had her first poem accepted for publication in an anthology: A Ritual to read together: poems in conversation with William Stafford. This book was to coincide with and celebrate the centenary of Stafford’s birth in 2014. At the same time Ask me: 100 essential poems, by Stafford himself, was being published.

As some readers will know Manjusvara was a friend of Stafford and regarded him as his mentor.( He also published him in England through his own Weatherlight press at a time when Stafford’s work was not readily available in this country.) What became clear on reading the introduction to A Ritual by his son Kim Stafford and Fred Marchant was that many others similarly held Willliam Stafford as a mentor, and that his example and teaching – the values which he embodied – were as important as, and indivisible from, the poems themselves.

As Kim Stafford and Fred Marchant say in the introduction: ‘One could think of this collection as a multi-faceted letter to William Stafford some twenty years after his death. It’s a letter that tells him not only how each poet is faring, but also how important Stafford’s writing, ideas, and teaching continue to be. For those who were his friends, it also registers how much his personal presence is missed. But this collection is neither elaborated elegy nor mere hagiography. What Becca J.R. Lachman has done as editor is bring together a set of contemporary poets whose work is ‘in conversation’ with William Stafford. Sometimes the conversation occurs as direct address, other times as vivid recollection, and yet other times as dream vision or ghostly visitation. Some of the poems launch forth from a Stafford line or two, while others pause to reflect upon some aspect of Stafford’s life. However, many of the poems make no direct reference to Stafford’s life or writing. Instead, they offer us an indirect conversation, often a meditation on some dimension of contemporary life that Stafford himself would have wanted to know of and hear about.’

The editor Becca Lachman has divided the poems into three sections, the first responding to Stafford’s use of place both as location and as an in a larger community. The second considers the many layers of peacemaking and violence, within ourselves and in our world, while the final section dialogues with Stafford’s philosophy on the writing life and teaching writing. She acknowledges that some poems span all three.

On reading this collection it is immediately striking how the poems capture the spirit of William Stafford, none more so than those by Robert Bly and Naomi Shihab Nye, who both make warm and humorous contributions. Apart from these two, most of the contributors will probably not be familiar names to English readers, so a bonus is an introduction to some new poets. What is also striking is how fresh, life affirming and diverse the poems are. Certain themes emerge however, one of which is listening. Kim Stafford says in the introduction, ‘The stance of listening carefully to what the world is whispering is an archetypal Stafford stance and engaging in that or a similar kind of listening is one fundamental way these poets are in conversation with him.’ No Stafford poem illustrates this stance better than the enigmatic ‘Ask me’ which embodies the importance of listening on both a personal and universal level.

I will listen to what you say.

You and I can turn and look

at the silent river and wait. We know

the current is there, hidden; and there

are comings and goings from miles away

that hold the stillness exactly before us.

What the river says, that is what I say.

Meaningful conversation inevitably involves good listening so in a sense listening in varying degrees is common to all the poems in A Ritual. Joel Peckham’s ‘The noise we make’ triggered by Stafford’s line ‘that’s what the silence meant: you’re not alone’ from ‘Assurance’ opens with:

We have to learn again to listen

to silences.

Some poems refer like this to listening specifically e.g. Fred Marchant’s evocative ‘Call to Prayer’ and Jim Daniel’s ‘Bare Spots’ and many others clearly imply listening e.g. William Sheldon’s ‘Hearing the river’:

Sometimes we wake

in the dark

and know the churning

that would free us

from doubt’s eddy,

a voice saying

‘It’s 4 a.m. Swim’.

Another theme emerging through the collection is that of transformation, sometimes striking and arresting, as in David Shumate’s prose poem ‘Bringing things back from the woods’ when the objects take on a new life ‘one of our oldest chairs is growing back its bark. A beam…. has sprouted a dozen leaves’, or more subtly in Joseph Hutchison’s mysterious ‘The Map’ (‘moon’ apparently was the first word Stafford uttered)

Again tonight your words

have come, simple as deer.

And now your moon, snowball

flung by a boy on the last clear

day of his childhood, melts

into paths under my eyelids,

filling those animal tracks

with cold light. I follow

that map, make my way deep

Into the forest… until a house

 

built of pine shadows appears,

a blood-red door, a paned

window where an old woman

leans, dry lips pursed – my name

blooming briefly on the glass.

Folk singer/songwriter Meg Hutchinson grew up in the Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts where she wandered as a child and found inspiration in the hills, rivers and woods there. Whilst the focus in this review is on her recent album Beyond that, which came out towards the end of 2103, it is worth returning first to her two previous albums Come up full and The Living Side, because there are clear references in the songs to some difficult years living with mental illness for which she had hospital treatment. In ‘Home’ she refers to ‘brave souls shuffling up and down the halls, no one visits no one even calls’, and includes lines such as ‘it’s possible to go so far down, I’m just glad they found a cure’, and the ‘dark night of the soul is real’. One of the recurring themes in the first two albums is of the highs and lows, of burning too bright then going dark, but ultimately finding herself again. Her lyrics and haunting melodies somehow seem to make the personal universal and also allow other people’s stories to come alive.

The optimism returns in ‘Full of light’: ‘I’m ready for something bigger than me’ with the chorus taken from the Rumi poem ‘Search the darkness’: ‘search the darkness don’t run from it, the night traveller is full of light.’ And this song seems like the precursor for what follows on Beyond that so it is perhaps significant that the title track opens with ‘Don’t let the darkness in – I’m already beyond that.’ She has moved on, yet it’s also as if she’s reminding herself not to go back. Meg’s songs require repeated listening – they are intimate low key affairs, emotionally honest, reflecting the struggles of her personal life but on Beyond that it is immediately clear there has been a significant shift, that this is an album about transformation. It could be called a song cycle in that the songs seem to evolve and flow into each other seamlessly, the end of each track almost unnoticeable. There is a new found serenity throughout, in ‘Nowhere’, ‘I used to own a lot of words, I used to talk all day but the more peace I find the less I have to say’ and evidence of moving beyond craving ‘my loves are many, my needs are few’ in ‘Only just begun.’ Musically there is also a shift from playing guitar, as on her previous albums, to the piano which she has relearnt. There is also her regular trio of musicians including ever present producer Crit Harmon, never intrusive but sensitively enhancing the voice and lyrics so they remain the focus of attention.

Referring to her childhood Meg says ‘growing up without a TV or internet there were so many quiet hours in a day, so many spaces between events. We have forgotten how to be alone in our thoughts. All the best work comes out of that rich stillness of waiting.’ This is exemplified in the exquisite ‘Let’s go’: ‘let’s go out to the back porch when the evening’s over – wait for Orion to rise above the cedars – in the middle of nowhere far from the town – I’ve never felt more found, more found than now.’ There is sense of wonder in the simple beauty of gathering stones from the almost frozen lake and dragging a tree home behind us. This is also a song about coming home not only in terms of her new family, but also on a higher spiritual level. Several of the songs could be addressed both to a personal lover and a spiritual teacher. Coming home, transforming desire, these themes are ever present through this song cycle. The meditative, sometimes ecstatic, quality reflects the fact that not only does Meg work in the field of mental health advocacy but has now studied and practises meditation and yoga. Her interests lie in bringing these together through her own creativity as a way of finding inner peace and freedom. Hence the lines in ‘Safe’:

all of this treasure….I gave it all away, that’s how I got free

May this human love throw open a door

to a greater love than I’ve ever known before and ending

but let my heart keep bursting.

The cycle concludes with the reflective ‘Everything more beautiful the quieter I become’ in praise of the miracle of life and an Epilogue: ‘Paradiso, the lyric’, adapted from the third and final part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine comedy.

This is a wonderful celebratory album which shows the journey of recovery and of listening is a never ending one. As in William Stafford’s poems and those written in conversation with him, listening is at the centre, the key to opening up. The digital age means more and more input in our lives and requires ever speedier responses to things. We need to slow down, wait and listen, whether it be to the wilderness or the river, the darkness, the spaces in between, our inner voice or to the silence within.

Simon Millward has been involved in writing and publishing poetry for many years. He is now enjoying rural life in North Devon where he writes and teaches meditation.

More on Meg Hutchinson’s Music at www.meghutchinson.com

Discipleship – an idea worth ressurecting?

The dictionary says that a disciple is ‘the follower of the doctrines of a teacher or school of thought’. But this doesn’t really convey the experiential flavour of that ancient institution. In days gone by, when you took up a trade or a course of study in guild, church or university, you were apprenticed to a master. You followed their teaching in craft, curriculum or philosophy closely. No doubt you were aware that as a human being they were far from perfect, but you knew that your future success in life depended on learning as much from the master as possible in a very broad sense. This aspect of education and human development is something we have largely lost in the modern world. In the Buddhist movement I am part of we are taking some steps to reinstate this ancient tradition, in ways that suit these times. I think we have a long way to go. Not everyone likes the idea. This may be because the second, religious, meaning of the word ‘a follower of Christ’ has been widely used by analogy in our times to apply to the often gullible devotees of eastern or new age gurus. This usage tends to imply a complete self surrender to the teacher on the part of the disciple. The result is that the more ‘secular’ meaning, of being a follower of someone’s teaching, which only implies a reasonable human respect for the teacher, has been drowned in the colourful, melodramatic history of religious and esoteric cults over the last hundred years or so. Think of the Golden Dawn, Madam Blavatsky, Rajneesh – all had their so called disciples – but how much did these followers really learn?

However, turning back much further we can remember that Socrates had disciples who learned nothing more than how little they truly knew. Plotinus, in careful, measured discourses, unlocked the secrets of the ascent of the soul to the absolute to his disciples in ancient Rome.This is true discipleship, much closer to the original pre-biblical meaning of the Latin term discipulus, which simply means a student of someone’s teaching. It can be used in the context of a particular discipline, or more broadly with regard to a teacher of the ‘art of life’. For if you realize you have more to learn, that your heart is not fully matured, then surely you will be a disciple of something or someone? In the sphere of the arts the term also gets used in that traditional but non-religious manner. For example: in saying that Yeats was a disciple of Pound I mean that he learned from him poetically (as did many poets of that generation) not that Yeats slavishly followed everything Pound did. Which is just as well in the circumstances. Yeats flirted a bit with far right fascist views but never joined up.In fact, the free thinking Yeats could never have been a disciple in the strongly religious sense – he didn’t last long as a follower of Madam Blavatsky – but there was much discipleship in his life, towards Plato and Plotinus, Keats and Shelley and, in an  esoteric/imaginative sense, towards the ‘sages in god’s holy fire’ of Byzantium itself.

Another important consideration is that discipleship is a heart-process of different levels. As a Buddhist my fundamental discipleship is towards the Buddha. But I may have a human Buddhist teacher, less fundamental but still important, who is my guide and interpreter of the Buddhist path. Likewise, in the field of poetry, I may look up to powerful exemplars like Yeats who embody the path of the poet, and then in my local class with the Poetry Society, have teachers who are closer to my level but still have much to teach.

Not that discipleship of any kind is likely to be plain sailing these days. Powerful forces of self defining individualism going back to the Reformation refuse to fit in with the idea of discipleship. So one becomes more aware of these forces if one tries to think in that way. Perhaps it would helpful to think in terms of a ‘spiritual apprenticeship’ to one’s chosen teacher. In any case, discipleship for us has to be an ongoing process, not a once for all signing up. And here again one can learn from the example of poetry. If I read a poet and find their vision of the world is compelling, well I am that poet’s disciple. I have learned something, modified who I am in some small but significant way.

Cantos for a Post Modern age: Mark Tredinnick

Just posted to our literature pages: a review of Mark Tredinnick’s, Bluewren Cantos (Pitt Street Poetry) by Colin Pink

Colin Pink says:

“Tredinnick’s poetry combines the personal, the spiritual and the natural worlds into one intricate web of meaning. There’s a richness to his work that resonates from bringing these perspectives together. One might say, rubbing them together creates the friction that ignites these poems into a pure and memorable flame.:

Read the full review here: TREDINNICK REVIEW

Mark Tredinnick

Mark Tredinnick

Geoffrey Hill: Broken Hierarchies (collected poems 1952-2012)

Hill reading in Leeds last year

Hill reading in Leeds last year

 

Any would-be reviewer of this large volume is in danger of falling into abashed silence. What can one say about the life’s work of the person who is without doubt England’s greatest living poet, the only authentic carrier of the torch lit by Pound and Eliot? I imagine that those who first held the collected poems of Yeats in their hands must have felt the same way. As Yeats was the brilliant last, late flowering of the entire Romantic tradition in poetry, the same might be said of Hill as regards the hieratic high modernism of Pound and Eliot. The title suggests this strongly. ‘Broken Hierarchies’ immediately suggests Eliot’s sense of our culture as a ‘heap of broken images’ and the project of poetry to both lament and rework that which can be rescued from the past. Hill has always said that his muse is history, and here it is at once plain that his actual, visceral sense of the past: of the history of Europe and its many races, of England’s history and of his own in the West Midlands, is much more of a real presence that in either of the founders of modernism. In fact Joyce might be a closer point of comparison, if anyone.

 

This volume contains a good deal of work not previously published, and contains what Hill calls ‘the definitive forms’ of previously published work. I don’t see evidence of the kind of wholesale rewriting that Auden, for example, indulged in, but several new sections have been added to ‘Hymn to Our Lady of Chartres’. In that poem also some strange ejaculations at the beginning of two stanzas (Eia!) have been removed. A reference to Hill’s socialist thinker / catholic convert Parisian hero Peguy has been exiled from the original central section of the poem, set in the cathedral itself, to the more discursive ‘foothills’ of the extended sequence. As Peguy famously never went to Church after his conversion this is perhaps appropriate. The replacements for these are harmless, if not especially revealing.

 

Nevertheless, the ‘Hymn to our Lady’, is now even more radiantly concerned with grace and it’s shadows:

 

… visible, invisible,

powers, presences, in and beyond the blue

glass, radiantly occluded sion, pour

festal light at the feet of the new poor,

scavengers upon grace…

 

…. Across France the great west

windows are full of the sun’s holocaust,

the dying blazons of eternity.

secured in mazy lead and bevelled stone.

(from sections 6 and 7)

 

This incidentally gives the lie to any notion of Hill as being parochially English. This poem is about the vexed heritage of Gothic piety in France, while referring forwards to the outrages of the 20th century and the continued poverty of the 21st, as France’s legions of ‘new poor’ seek comfort by visiting the vast edifice of Chartres. Who but Hill could couple faith in eternity and a brooding sense of its opposite, in one felicitous oxymoronic phrase?

 

Yet indeed, who else could so simply and vividly evoke the clotted reality of an ordinary English churchyard, its changing weathers, then turn it into a meditation on the nature of appearances:

 

Sage-green though olive to oxidized copper,

the rainward stone tower-face. Gaveyard

blossom comes off in handfuls; the lilac

turned overnight a rough tobacco brown.

Every few minutes the drizzle shakes

itself like a dog…

 

My question, since I am a paid retainer,

is whether the appearances, the astonishments,

stand in their own keepings finally,

or are annulled through the changed measures of light.

Imagination freakish, dashing every way,

defers annulment.

 

‘In Ipsley Church Lane 2’, from Without Title.

 

I will leave you, before retiring to silence (and yet Hill is a poet who makes you want to muck in with, indeed to love, the act of writing) with one of his most personal lyrics, from the famous ‘Merican Hymns’. This short evocation of this grandmother’s life, is a chant, a classical lay, and yet astonishing in its visceral faithfulness to the actual conditions of her life; it reminds me of the late, great Seamus Heaney, who knew well the blacksmith’s den, and who would have loved the riddled, brooding reference to the letters of Ruskin to British workers on social change, with their invocation of the moral value of labour and the three transforming powers of fortitude (clavis, the key of Ulysses), destiny (clavus, the nail of Lysergus) and force (clava, the club of Hercules:

 

Brooding on the eighth letter of Flors Clavigera,

I speak this in memory of my Grandmother, whose

childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the

nailer’s darg.

 

The Nailshop stood back of our cottage, by the fold.

It reeked stale mineral sweat. Sparks had furred its

low roof. In dawn light the troughed water

floated a samson-bloom of dust.

 

‘Mercian Hymns’ XXV, page

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s Blog – thoughts on art, life and everything

In memory and celebration: Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney died on August 30th this year at the age of 74 after a short illness – he had taken a fall outside a Dublin restaurant. Physically he had been weaker since a stroke in 2006, but his last collection Human Chain (2010) showed no dimmunition in his powers of sensitivity and reflection. It was described by Ruth Pardell, poet and judge of the Forward Prize, as ‘a collection of painful, honest and delicately weighted poems… a wonderful and humane achievement’ (Human Chain was the first of his collections to win that prize – perhaps the only major poetry award he had not so far received.)

His previous collection District and Circle (2006) likewise contained several intensely moving poems with an elegiac mood. It was characteristic of the man, loved by so many – poets, writers and millions of others around the world – to have been preparing us, and himself, for his expected departure, with down to earth images of both mortality and on going life.

For example in ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ the poet finds the bird:

On the grass when I arrive,

Filling the stillness with life,

But ready to scare off

At the very first wrong move.

In the ivy when I leave.

 

It’s you, Blackbird, I love.

 

And this reminds him of the little brother lost in a traffic accident when he was only just out of the nest himself:

And I think of one gone to him,

A little stillness dancer –

Haunter-son, lost brother –

Cavorting through the yard,

So glad to see me home,

 

My homesick first term over.

 

But although the blackbird portended death to neighbours who were sensetive to such things ‘I’ve never liked yon bird’ , for the poet he is both sentinel of death and emissary of life. The poem closes:

Hedge-hop, I am absolute

For you, your ready talkback,

Your each stand-offish comeback,

Your picky, nervy goldbeak –

On the grass when I arrive,

 

In the ivy when I leave.

 

A blackbird, hopping on the grass, then half-hidden in the ivy ­– two very homely images. There would be few in the northern hemisphere at least to whom they would not be instantly recognisable. And yet from them has been crafted both a celebration of the life force and an elegy for all that may be lost. What other poet of the 20th century could have done such a thing? We have lost a writer and a man who is irreplaceable. In the late summer the newspapers were filled with stories of his acts of generosity towards fellow poets and his untiring service to literature in general.

Many remarked on how fame had not touched him, how he remained to the end exceptionally approachable, gregarious, courteous and convivial, but never crude in his speech. As Colm Toibin remarked ‘he preferred shadow to light; the half-said, careful, ambiguous remark to the big statement, he liked the slow smile rather than the easy laugh.’

Similar qualities, of course, could be discovered in the poetry. He leaves a body of work which, while deeply rooted in particular places and times, especially the rural County Derry of his childhood, seemed to speak a universal language. His was a language of loved things and loved places, and indeed of a deep amour with language itself. Who can forget her, once they have read of the ‘girl from Derry garve’? The lyric, in truth, is a love poem to the name of her home, the way its two syllables fall and slide off the tongue:

And the name, a lost potent mask,

Recalled the river’s long swerve,

A kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk

This land of slow, winding rivers and endless mossy bogs, was, of course, also a land divided.  In his Nobel address Heaney talked of the poet’s struggle in the face of history, and provided a clue as to how he himself engaged with the schisms and violence of his homeland: ‘What will always be to poetry’s credit is the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it.’ In all of his work, poetry, translations and the rich collection  of lectures and essays that he leaves behind, Heaney was always a poet of the ‘rightness’ that is to be found in this world. In his very best poems he puts the endstop firmly there, yet simultaneously opens up a sense that ‘this world’ is in truth unlimited. This is from ‘Squarings’ in the collection  Seeing Things:

And after the commanded journey, what?

Nothing magnificent, nothing unknown.

A gazing out from far away, alone.

 

And it is not particular at all,

Just old truth dawning: there is no next time round.

Un-roofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.