When I first decided, a few years ago, to learn poems off by heart, this was the first one on my list. It still thrills me each time I dredge it from my inner archives and press play. Why do I love it so much and what is its medicine for me?
It’s partly for reasons of personal recognition. I love hearing the Irish vernacular (I’ve lived in the UK for fourteen years and miss it). Having spent many summers on the west coast of Ireland I’m familiar with the dramatic qualities of the light there that this poem captures with such pinpoint accuracy. And like most nature lovers, I know the experience of stumbling onto scenes of great beauty that ‘catch the heart off guard and blow it open.’ As in the classic song ‘Killing Me Softly…’, Heaney is ‘singing my life with his words’.
But Heaney is a master poet, avoiding the cliché of sounding like a tourist advert through surprising images and subtle use of sound. The long ‘i’ of ‘time’, ‘light’, ‘side’, ‘wild’, ‘lightning’ and ‘white’ build and echo in ‘sideways’. He uses the short ‘i’ in ‘wind’ and ‘glitter’ to emphasize the ‘lit’ that highlights the central image of ‘the earthed lightning of a flock of swans’. The ‘o’s of the final punchline ‘blow it open’ are set up by the preceding intonation of ‘October’, ‘ocean’, ‘stones’, ‘grown’, ‘known’.
Like all great poems, space is left for the ineffable. ‘Useless to think you’ll park and capture it / More thoroughly’ is an acknowledgement of the fleeting nature of such moments, as well as a humbling admission for a writer. We may be ‘A hurry through which known and strange things pass’ but on this occasion Heaney was gifted with the grace to catch that moment and preserve it for the rest of us. Like W.B. Yeats, who carries his memories of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ I carry this poem so ‘While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray, / I hear it in the deep heart’s core.’
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level (1996)