Saying “My Story”, this is an Irish poem from the 7th-13th century. The author is unknown. This is translated by Brendan Kennelly. From the Penguin Book of Irish Verse.
A simple poem, but you can feel the winter “snarling” in these simple lines. It’s not very cold in Paris yet, but winter is coming. What’s more, our heating is broken down. Tomorrow we’ll get it repaired.
The thought of saying words, even a translation, that date from more than a thousand years ago; strange to think these fragments of a civilisation from so long ago. Fragments that come to us over the ages, here is it the story of the land? Whose story is it?
I am learning all of these poems and thinking of the desires and wishes that the poems contain. The time that these poems cross to come down to us. How something so fragile can cross time is a marvel… Can we leave things for others to find? Can we cross to others through time? Messages that cross through time and space…
The photo on this page is of the Gallarus Oratory, one of the earliest Christian buildings in Ireland, dating from 6th – 7th century. It is in Kerry on the Dingle Peninsula.
Here’s my story; the stag cries
Winter snarls as summer dies.
The wind bullies the low sun
in poor light; the seas moan.
Shapeless bracken is turning red,
The wildgoose raises its desperate head.
Birds’ wings freeze where fields are hoary.
The world is ice. That’s my story.
Anonymous from the 7th-13th century. Translated by Brendan Kennelly. From the Penguin Book of Irish Verse.
This is a poem that I started learning at the end of August. I have been trying to learn a poem a week. It is now mid September.
I don’t really know why but this poem turned out to be so difficult to learn. It is a little longer than the other ones I have learnt so far but I think there is something about the message in the poem. Something about it that I can hear but not really feel.
The poem is one of Heaney’s earlier poems and he is looking at his father and his grandfather and how they were brilliant at digging. The rhymes are beautiful and subtle and it just sounds so natural. It is a beautiful poem. Maybe the core message did not vibrate with me.
Why so difficult?
Some of the reasons that made it so difficult to learn this poem was that there was a lot of stuff going on: it was the end of the holidays and then it was back to school for my young family. I tried a couple of times to record it but nearly everytime I tried to record it I got something wrong. Either when I was saying it or else something happened during the recording.
I have seen great advantages from learning poetry though. I have seen it in re-learning some of my music and lyrics for the groups I play with.
There was a concert with Onze Onze and it was so easy to relearn all the lyrics after the holidays. In an earlier post I wondered about the utility of learning these poems so I suppose I am getting an answer already.
I can also feel it in my writing. I have continued drawing as well and there are things changing with that too. I will announce the news in relation to drawings on a separate post.
Last night, I was at the birthday party of a friend and he co-celebrated his birthday with his father. We improvised some music with some musician friends. I improvised some lyrics.
What can we say about time passing? About those who have come before? How can we live up to the ones who were before us?
Heaney answers you have to use the tools that you have.
Hope you enjoy this poem and see you soon…
Digging by Seamus Heaney.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney.
Here I am saying The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost (1874–1963).
At the moment I am on holiday in Ireland. I am trying to memorize a poem every week. This is the second poem that I have learnt. It was rather difficult to recite it, as every time I have tried to recite it I was interrupted. I am in my parent’s house with lots of nieces and nephews and of course my own children. That is why I am reciting it hidden in my bed… Even still you can hear some children if you listen carefully, shouting in the distance, as I say it.
This poem was originally intended as a joke by Robert Frost to his friend and fellow poet Edward Thomas who was famously indecisive, especially on their walks together. This was when Frost lived in England for a short time.
Generally people imagine this poem to be the decision, made earlier in one’s life, about a road not taken. However, having spent some time with the poem you hear that
“and both that morning equally lay
in leaves no step had trodden black.”
So, in fact there is no real choice to be made. The general understanding of this poem, at least in popular culture, is that this choice was difficult and that the narrator made a choice “the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”. In fact, both routes are the same. You cannot make a real choice between them. In reality we know that there are rarely situations in which we fell there is a black or white choice.
Perhaps we see all these choices only in retrospect. As the narrator imagines himself somewhere in the future, sighing, regretting the route that he took.
Sometimes we don’t even see what choices there are. We imagine the choices afterwards.
As I was reading about Frost and learning the poem I found it a little difficult. It is beautifully written and yet there are no images really. A yellow wood, leaves that no step has trodden black and a road that bends into the undergrowth. That is what is so beautiful about this poem. It has structure and a stark, simple beauty. It is delightful to see how effortlessly Frost has put the spoken patterns into the meter “though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same”.
Recently, I have been looking at Edward Hopper‘s paintings again. There are parallels between Hopper and Frost. Hopper was a 20th century painter yet like Frost he seems to have 19th century concerns. Everyone knows his work, at least superficially. We can see that his selection of reality is an interpretive one. His interests seems to be formal ones, also like Frost.
Everything in Hopper’s work is deceptively simple. For me it is fascinating to think that Hopper was also a contemporary of Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko. In the 40s and 50s abstract expressionism was the direction that painting took in America. The expression of the individual. The cool calculated approach of Hopper was no longer relevant.
Learning poems and saying them
It is easier to learn a poem with a rhyming scheme. I thinkthat I will be able to learn many poems. It is an interesting way of approaching a poem. You begin to get inside the poem.
However, I do not know what the point of this is. I do not really know why I am doing this. I think of it as a way of learning forms of poetry (stanzas, iambic tetrameter, etc) and maybe reproducing them in my own writing. Maybe that is what I will tell myself after…
It is hard to recite poetry. What I mean by that, is it is hard to just say a poem in a simple way so that you can hear the words and not the way it is being said. It is hard to say a poem to people.
I tried a couple of times, just in the middle of the day, just to say to somebody “would you like to hear a poem?” It is strange. Maybe we think of poems as being very personal. I know I am not sure if I would like someone to recite poems to me. It is an interruption. I want to know how long the poem will be. It’s like looking at a video on the web and being able to see the time that it will last. We have no attention span anymore.
What form? What for?
So I will just keep learning poems. It is a little like learning songs that no one will ever hear… Or the time spent looking at things that nobody ever knows. Going back to Hopper, you can see from his very detailed notes that he really imagined his paintings beforehand.
I always wonder how much artists really know before they do or make something. It is a mix of both approaches. We never really do know. Then we have to make a choice… And perhaps never do but make believe that we have made a choice afterwards.