Singing School

 

      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

 

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.

      

The poems I have sent out have been, for the most part, deeply personal and lyrical.  In my previous epistle, I discussed two poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool” and “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” that were more social: the first, a presentation of a segment of society that is not often overheard or even understood; the second, a meditation on a central historical and political event, the attempt to integrate the public schools in the South of the United States.

 

We each have our values.  Mine, as regards poetry, include the willingness – not always easy to enact, even though it is easy to say – to accept poems as a legitimate avenue into lives and feelings and views that are not my own.  And, equally important but in some opposition to the first, to give a sort of ‘priority of value’ to poems that move beyond the personal, without in any way divorcing themselves from the personal, into a larger realm, that of the political and consciously historical.

 

I thought to discuss two longer poems, among the greatest poems of the twentieth century, by what are arguably the two most important Russian poets of the twentieth century, Vladimir Myakovksy and Anna Akhmatova.  And I likely shall send out those poems – though Akhmatova’s is so long I may have second thoughts – in the near future. 

 

But first I want to look, together with you, at what I think as the most resonant of all the poems written by Seamus Heaney, the fourth section, “Summer, 1969,” of his six-part sequence “Singing School.”

 

Heaney died earlier this past year. It was a great loss: in my view, Heaney was the greatest poet to write in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century. Irish (from the North of Ireland), Catholic, prolific, at ease with words in a way that few poets have ever been, he wrote of many things.  But his central concern was Ireland, and his central preoccupation was with the experience of being an oppressed member of a colonized state.  For England controlled, and still controls, Northern Ireland, and despite their being a sizable minority of the population, Catholics there have been and still are oppressed.  Second class citizens in their own homeland. 

 

“Singing School,” the sequence, follows (as the epigraph indicates) in the footsteps of William Wordsworth’s great epic The PreludeThe Prelude, subtitled “Growth of a Poet’s Mind,” was composed between 1798 and 1805, although it was published only in 1850 after the poet’s death.  Wordsworth, who had huge poetic ambitions, wanted to write a great contemporary epic.  The hitch was, he was depressed and therefore unable to approach that task.  How to commence?  What subject to choose?  Wordsworth, in an act which prefigures psychoanalysis, decided to go back to beginnings and explain, to himself and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “with better knowledge how the heart was framed/ Of him thou lovest.”  And so his journey back to beginnings contains the lines Heaney uses as his epigraph:  “Fair seedtime had my soul.” 

 

But Wordsworth’s journey back to beginnings is no sentimental trip into a “fair” and lovely land.  “I grew up/ Fostered alike by beauty and by fear,” he continues.  

 

Heaney’s childhood trajectory is the same.  Part one of the sequence is about how Heaney and his poet-friend Seamus Deane grew up in a culture – he speaks of a boarding school in Belfast – that denied him any legitimate access to writing poetry in English: his education was under the cultural auspices of a “ministry of fear.”  Part two recounts the visit of a constable to collect taxes on agricultural crops from Heaney’s father: the constable who is the close-up embodiment of the British state which with its many mechanisms of power keeps the Irish Catholics of northern Ireland in a state of fear.  Part three is a brief chronicle of a parade in which the might of the Protestants is on display.  Part four, I shall discuss.  Part five recognizes one of his ‘teachers,” the Irish poet Michael McLaverty, who “fostered me” even as his own “buckled self” (a reference to Hopkins’ “The Windhover”) is “obeisant to their pain,” the pain in Hopkins’ poems. The final poem in the sequence is about being in Ireland, deeply sad, “Neither internee nor informer,/An inner émigré” who nonetheless somehow misses out on the major event of his lifetime, the Catholic rebellion against British rule.

 

A poem in a sequence occurs in context, which is why I have summarized the other poems in “Singing School.”  To my mind, the fourth poem in the sequence, “Summer 1969” is a marvel of a poem, one that addresses, head on, the relation of the personal and the political: ostensibly for the poet, but in a larger sense for all of us. 

 

First, the temporal setting.  The British army was sent to Northern Ireland in 1969  to ‘protect’ Catholics from abuse by the (Protestant) Royal Ulster Constabulary.  After the heavy hand of the British served to further oppress the Catholic population, the  Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) began a guerilla campaign to free Northern Ireland of British rule and its attendant Protestant hegemony over Catholics.  Heaney’s poem is set in the summer of 1969, when the British troops first arrived and the Constabulary showed its opposition to any effort to ‘protect’ the Catholic minority. 

 

While the Constabulary covered the mob   

Firing into the Falls, I was suffering

Only the bullying sun of Madrid.

 

“The Falls” refers to Falls Road, which is heavily Catholic and abuts a heavily Protestant section of Belfast.  It was here that the British troops, sent to protect Catholic civil rights, arrived, and here where the Ulster Constabulary supported a “mob” of Protestants who opposed the extension of such rights to Irish Catholics.

 

Heaney reveals in the opening lines  that he is far away from what came to be known as ‘the Troubles.’  He is summering in Spain.

 

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.

 

  This poem is an anguished meditation on what it means to be away from where history, the history of his people, is being made.  Far off from struggle.  Heaney reads the huge and magisterial Ellman biography of Joyce while outside his apartment the atmosphere of Spain surrounds him: the fishmarket (whose odors, tellingly, remind him the smells of Ireland), wine (“gules” is, in the vocabulary of heraldry, the color red), “old women in black shawls,” the sounds of spoken Spanish everywhere.  (Pretty wonderful description, isn’t it, of Spanish in the streets of the city, “the air a canyon rivering in Spanish.”)  A flax dam is not a dam, but rather a pond in which flax is ‘fermented’ so its strands can be used to make linen.  (An Irish  flax dam  is the subject of a later great poem by Heaney, “The Death of a Naturalist” which you can read at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/weekly-poem-death-of-a-naturalist ,  a PBS web page where Heaney also reads the poem aloud in a curiously unmoving video.)

 

We talked our way home over starlit plains   

Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil   

Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.

 

Here, in the “casserole heat” of Spain, reading, drinking wine, surrounded by Iberian culture,  Heaney walks at night with friends.   The lines, if we pay attention to them, are fraught with police presence (the Spanish  police, the “Guardia Civil” who reawaken the memory of Ireland – that flax-dam which the smell of the fishmarket recalled. )  Only now the Ireland he recalls is one of rotting fish, an Ireland where uniforms (the second poem of the sequence was, as I have mentioned, about an Irish constable) enforce British and Protestant rule.   The rotten fish of Ireland also prefigure the last of Goya’s paintings referred to later in the poem, where two brothers beat each other, mindlessly, to death.

 

Franco’s police state – Franco was in power in Spain until his death in 1975 – and the destructive colonizing power in Northern Ireland are then linked in these lines, referring to his conversations with friends in Spain:

 

‘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.

 

As they walk, as they drink wine in the evenings, Heaney and his friends talk about the relation between the poet and the history that is being made in Northern Ireland.    One tells him to go back and be a poet for his Irish compatriots; another suggests the model of Federico Garcia Lorca, whose social concerns likely led to his execution by Nationalist forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War.   In Franco’s Spain, as in much of the world, the struggle for justice is subsumed, although occasionally on television a ‘celebrity’ steps forward in the media – some figure such as those who struggle for civil liberties in Belfast,  or such as Martin Luther King in America –“from where the real thing still happened.”

 

Before we leave these lines, as Heaney will leave his apartment and friends, make sure  you note the passing reference to television newscasts.  The numbers of the dead (a connection to Ireland) is laid against “bullfight reports.”   At the end of the poem, imagery of the bullfight will come back with stunning power

 

Heaney does not want to go back to Ireland, to “where the real thing still happened.”  He is in Spain to get away from the cold rain of Ireland, to move from Guinness to red wine, to be buffered by a language that is not his own and which protects him (except for those reports on television) from his own country and culture.  Heaney leaves the safe confines of his daily life to go a seemingly even more safe – distanced – place,  Madrid’s famous museum to look at art.  Art, though, will turn out to be far less safe than daily life.

 

I retreated to the cool of the Prado.   

 

            Thus the final long stanza of the poem commences by recounting how the poet retreats from the streets into the cool of the great Prado museum.  We understand, I think, that he is also trying – trying – to retreat from life into art. The retreat into art, difficult if not impossible, was the central subjectof Heaney’s great and therefore at once guiding and frightening predecessor, William Butler Yeats.

 

A modest digression which does not really digress:  Yeats, Anglo-Irish in a time when a portion of Ireland, including many of Yeats’ best friends, was in rebellion against the British, wanted desperately to find a way to retreat from politics.  Yeats tried art, he tried superiority to the political fanatics, he tried to escape history by universalizing it into a grand theory that operated independently of human action.  To his credit, Yeats’ struggle with politics and history was foregrounded in his work.   He knew that out of the revolutionaries (whom he looked down on) “a terrible beauty is born.”  He knew that in the tension between art and life, art sometimes wins – but not always.  He constantly sought escape, as his late poem, “Politics” so eloquently illustrates:

 

Politics

 

How can I, that girl standing there,

My attention fix

On Roman or on Russian

Or on Spanish politics?

Yet here's a travelled man that knows

What he talks about,

And there's a politician

That has read and thought,

And maybe what they say is true

Of war and war's alarms,

But O that I were young again

And held her in my arms!

 

            The critic Harold Bloom has pointed out that poets write with an ‘anxiety of influence.”  They are engaged with their strong predecessors, seeking a place from which to write that is their own, a place and space that is not already ‘occupied’ by the great writers who came before them.  No aspiring poet wants to be a pale copy of someone who came before.  The poet must carve out a space different from the space carved out by his or her forebears.

 

            This poem, “Summer 1960,” is exactly this sort of attempt.  ‘No, William Yeats,’ it exclaims, ‘I cannot walk in your footsteps.  You got it wrong.  There is no retreating into art.  The greatest artists [this poem will proclaim] do not long for retreat into youth and a woman’s arms.  The greatest artists’ – ah, but let us return to the poem.

 

            Heaney has retreated to the Prado.  But there he finds none of the escape he anticipated. no escape.  He immediately encounters what he sought to evade.

 

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 Prado, Francisco Goya’s great painting, a more than eloquent outcry against the tyranny of an imperial power (Napoleon had invaded Spain, and the painting shows the harsh penalty for those who resisted his invasion), confronts Heaney. 

 

 

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fd/El_Tres_de_Mayo%2C_by_Francisco_de_Goya%2C_from_Prado_thin_black_margin.jpg/311px-El_Tres_de_Mayo%2C_by_Francisco_de_Goya%2C_from_Prado_thin_black_margin.jpg

 

The white-shirted peasant is helpless, wide-eyed, cognizant of what is about to happen

because three of his dead, bloodied compatriots are at his feet.  Other compatriots indicate the horror: they can neither watch nor hear what is about to transpire, covering their eyes and their ears.  Two of them want to resist, one with raised fist, one with both fists in front of him.  Another is speechless, his hands before his mouth.  Others look downward in despair.  The firing squad looks like a machine, their postures exactly similar to one another, their rifles aligned in a level plane that is about to issue in a fusillade.  The soldiers are uniformed (“the helmeted/And knapsacked military”), their  hats, coats, scabbarded swords  so similar that each is turned into a part of a faceless whole: for though we see the lit face of the white-shirted peasant, and some of his fellows, we do not see a single soldier’s face. 

 

            The tension – executioners and victims confronting one another – is remarkable.  There is, in this painting, no Yeatsian escape, no “O that I were young again/And held her in my arms!”  There is no place of retreat or evasion in this painting.  The horror of engagement, of the powerless set upon by an authority that enforces its power through the barrels of guns, is inescapable.  “The efficient rake of the fusillade.”

 

            Oh, there is truly no escape from “the real thing,” for as Heaney leaves (flees?) this gallery he encounters more of Goya’s paintings. 

 

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.          

 

http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/goya/goya.saturn-son.jpg

 

The painting above is “Saturn Devouring his Son.”  It is an outcry against the cruelty with which creatures – divine but more particularly human – devour their own: not just their own species, but their own offspring.  And ‘devour’ is the operative term: Saturn is eating his own child: having eaten his head and one arm, he is now mutilating the second arm.

 

            Goya’s “nightmares” are both dark dreams and a savagely realistic (in that they with great courage portray the horrors men inflict upon one another, not realistic in that they show the details of the ‘real’ world) portrayal of the brutality that men inflict upon one another. 
Goya’s “The Disasters of War,” a series of 80 prints, mostly etchings, is the most sustained and outraged indictment of war and the catastrophes it visits on human beings and their spiritual selves that has ever been created.  (For those interested, the series can be seen online at http://www.richardharrisartcollection.com/portfolio-view/francisco-goya-2  Not like seeing the real thing, but then, the web can take us places that time and space preclude us from going at any given moment…)

 

The paintings in the Prado echo, and in the case of the “Saturn” painting, go beyond the prints I have just referred to. I suspect, having seen the prints in their actual form but unfortunately not the paintings, that the large scale and the use of color has an impact more immediate than the overpowering cumulation of the “Disasters” prints with their astonishing horrors.  There is no doubt, in this poem, that the paintings stun Heaney, and overwhelm him.

 

Nor can there be any doubt that one of the two paintings which speaks to him most directly is the last one he refers to: he gives it an entire sentence, and describes it more fully than any of the other paintings he refers to after his first encounter with the “Shooting of the Third of May”:

 

Also, that holmgang

Where two berserks club each other to death   

For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.

 

First, vocabulary.  A ‘holmgang’ was a medieval form of duel.  ‘Greaved’ refers to armor of the lower leg, although the combatants in the painting are so deep into the bog that the greaves are not seen and must be imagined.  Probably, they are symbolic and not actual: the men are sheathed in a sense of righteousness which is meant to protect them from the murderous folly in which they are engaged. 

 

 

 

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/Ri%C3%B1a_a_garrotazos.jpg

The parallels to Northern Ireland are hard to miss.  In “Two Men with Cudgels” the two men, in appearance similar, are trying to beat each other to death.   They are crazed – “berserks” is the term Heaney uses – in pursuit of “honour.”  A word which, in this context, is certainly meant ironically.  Nothing seems at stake here but for each to destroy the other.  For what?  “Honour.”  Right: that justifies exactly nothing.  They are in a muddy swamp (the “bog”) and the comma and the rhythm of the line emphasize what is, in actuality and somehow unbeknownst to the two combatants in their rage at one another, their “sinking.”  “For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.”

 

At this point, we arrive at the poem’s conclusion, a final couplet which is I think among the greatest lines anyone has ever written.  We recall in that the opening stanza of the poem Heaney presented himself as bookish, imbibing, walking with friends, seeking retreat from the “bullying sun” in “the cool of the Prado.” 

 

What he discovers in Goya’s paintings, which he cannot avoid even though he seeks a “retreat,” is that we must face up to history.  The bullfight, which we encountered only momenrtarily in the middle stanza ) in the mention that “we sat through…bullfight reports,” returns in the final line as metaphor.

 

He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished

The stained cape of his heart as history charged.

 

Whew.  Goya, despite the artistry of which he is capable, paints not as we imagine painters paint, with his fingers and wrists, but by bringing his body to the work.  “He painted with his fists and elbows” – we are back in some fashion to the two figures to the left of the man with upraised arms who is about to be killed by the firing squad in “Shootings of the Third of May.”  There the pugilistic stance  of the man on the left with downward facing fists and beside him the upraised, clenched hand of his comrade (however ineffective those fists may be against the “helmeted and knapsacked military,” as ineffective perhaps as the outraised arms of the target of the firing squad)” are the only proper response to the outrages of history. 

 

Before we move on to the final line, I want you to focus once more on how stunning the penultimate line is.  “He painted with his fists and elbows.”  It is, of course, not possible to paint this way (unless one is an abstract expressionist) yet we know exactly what Heaney means.  Goya does not accept the world as given, nor does he “retreat” into some world of finely made art.  He will engage history with his entire bodily being.

 

More.  In the poem’s final line, Goya is portrayed as a matador, not retreating from violence and the difficult world, but urging the world to come right at him.  He “flourished/The stained cape of his heart as history charged.”  Unafraid of the world and its terrifying destructiveness, Goya puts his heart in front of him, “flourishing” it to urge history to charge directly at him and into his painting.  I love the “stained cape of his heart:”  that word, “stained,” indicates fully that Goya will not be, has not been, untouched by the pain and difficulty of life and of human history.  (It is of course also realistic, in that matadors water down their capes to give them weight, and the water attracts the dust of the bull ring.  Also, capes are reused, and the blood of former bullfights likewise stains them.  Of  course, our metaphoric hearts are stained by the difficult wounding experiences we encounter, and our actual hearts reddened by the blood they continually pump. )  

 

In the poem, Heaney presents us with a situation – he, far from “where the real thing still happened,” working on his poetry by retreating into foreign travel, big books, wine, camaraderie, discussion – that is untenable, since ‘retreat’ and ‘art’ while they seem compatible are deeply antagonistic.  Going to the Prado, his ultimate retreat from the “bullying sun” of the real world, is not the escape he had imagined, because in confronting Goya’s paintings he comes face to face with what an artist can be and what an artist can accomplish. 

 

Does Heaney ever become the fully engaged artist Francisco Goya was?  I think he did not.  But out of his awareness that this is what art must strive after, out of his need to recognize the insufficiency of art when it is confronted by the demands of the living world, he makes his poems.  If Heaney is not a bullfighter like Goya, neither does he long for escape like Yeats. 

 

In this poem, despite his desire for retreat, Heaney chooses to “flourish the stained cape of his heart” before contemporary historical crisis, and to let us watch as he tries to face up to that crisis.  Out of the conflict of how to respond to history, he makes his poetry.

 

 

 

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