Lifesaving Lines: Fosterage, by Seamus Heaney

I was very saddened to hear of the death of Brendan Kennelly this week. He had been a long-standing presence in my poetic universe, and was part of the constellation of poets collected in that life-changing anthology Poetry With an Edge which I devoured in the early nineties having decided to put poetry at the centre of my life. (If you are new to this blog, I have written about his poem ‘May the Silence Break’ here, and, more recently, ‘The Gift’ here.)

That final phrase belongs to his compatriot Seamus Heaney, who has also been in my thoughts recently, namely the austere quatrains and ‘inner émigré’ monlogues of his fourth collection, North. The line that’s been nagging away at me is from the poem ‘Fosterage’, part 5 of the ‘Singing School’ sequence. The poem is one of three that Heaney wrote in celebration of his friend and teaching colleague the short-story writer and novelist Michael McLaverty.

The poem contains a model of Heaney’s ability to make poetry out of everyday speech:

‘Listen. Go your own way.
Do your own work. Remember
Katherine Mansfield—I will tell
How the laundry basket squeaked ... that note of exile.’ 

I first read it having just finished a big Katherine Mansfield phase, and was sure that the universe was trying to tell me something. The lines ‘Go your own way./ Do your own work’ in particular have been copied into more commonplace notebooks and quotebooks than I can remember.

They’ve been nagging away at me because I find them seductive as a vision of what I want from poetry, mine and others, and yet so austere (that word again) in practice. Going your own way in order to do your own work and in the process ignore what may or may not be fashionable, important or (even) good is, I have found, tough. On one level, thanks to my allergic reaction to social media, this plays out as not really knowing what is going on in poetry land. I follow a mere handful of poetry blogs, and trust (and hope) that if the news is worth knowing, it will show up there. Mostly it does. But when it doesn’t, I can’t prevent the FOMO instincts of my Twitter days kicking in all over again.

On another level altogether, it just feels lonely. I have been battering away at some stuff for a while now, which, thanks to the help of some very kind people, might one day see the light. Some of it is emerging, slowly and cautiously. But it still feels lonely. My instinct is to hide, both the poems and me. Yet out it must. I wish there was another way.

On the plus side, a huge advantage of following McLaverty’s advice is that it can insulate you from what Heaney describes so acutely in the ‘Singing School’s’ final poem, ‘Exposure’: ‘friends’/ Beautiful prismatic counselling/ And the anvil brains of some who hate me’; and ‘what is said behind-backs’. The poets I look up to, Kennelly and Heaney among them, seem to (have) be(en) able to navigate a path between the private and the social (in the fullest sense) which fulfils the obligations of each without cancelling the other out. I aspire to be among them.


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