Heaney in County Derry

April 13:On this day in 1939 Seamus Heaney was born, the eldest of nine children on aCounty Derry farm. Heaney’s first collection of poems earned four major awardsand provoked Christopher Ricks to declare that those “who remain unstirredby Seamus Heaney’s poems will simply be announcing that they are unable to giveup the habit of disillusionment with recent poetry.” There have been somethree dozen books since, and the awards list now includes a Nobel. In”Crediting Poetry,” his Nobel Lecture, Heaney recalls when the childhoodfarm kitchen was a cosmos:

In the nineteen forties,when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, wecrowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead andlived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectuallyproofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturelyexistence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond onebedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchenbeyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course—rain inthe trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line onefield back from the house—but we took it in as if we were in the doze ofhibernation.

In “A Sofa in the Forties”(The Spirit Level, 1996), Heaneyrecalls “All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling / Behind each other,eldest down to youngest, / Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train.”With help from the radio, the nine kids left the three rooms for “historyand ignorance”: “Yippee-I-ay, / Sang ‘The Riders of the Range.’ HEREIS THE NEWS, / Said the absolute speaker….” At the closing lines, the living-roomchild-train chugs on confidently through unimaginable hairpin turns andpotential disasters:

…we sensed

A tunnel coming up wherewe’d pour through

Like unlit carriagesthrough fields at night,

Our only job to sit, eyesstraight ahead,

And be transported andmake engine noise.

Heaney says in his Nobelspeech that the radio brought first news of places like Stockholm. He alsorecalls the worldly advice of his Ballymurphy schoolmaster: “Work hard andwhen you leave school, don’t end up measuring your spits on some streetcorner.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.