Seamus Heaney: a Study in Tact

Seamus Heaney, photo by Bobbie Hanvey, from the archive in Burns Library, Boston College.

Kevin Coyne explores Seamus Heaney’s wonderful, quietly heart-breaking poem ‘Mid-Term Break’.

We’re fast approaching the two year anniversary of Seamus Heaney’s death. Much has been made and mythologized of Heaney since his passing, and rightly so (though I suspect he would’ve balked at many of the plaudits heaped upon him). Maybe what marks Heaney’s work as so salient is the feeling you know the man after reading his poetry; as Paul Muldoon wrote in his eulogy for Heaney, he possessed “a signal ability to make each of us connected to not only him but to one another”.

A Catholic born in County Derry/ Londonderry of Protestant Northern Ireland in 1939, Heaney occupied a kind of borderland in his life and poetry alike. And while much of Heaney’s work grappled with political concerns, especially The Troubles, his poems are never slack with simplicity or overwrought with politics. As exemplified in ‘Casualty’, Heaney’s more interested in the drunkard fisherman than bald-faced political statements. However, his poetry is distinctly of a place, portraying Ireland with evocative and imagistic language. Beyond this, his work is quite difficult to pin down. He’s often described as an ethical poet, writing with a responsibility to ancestry and the past, but his poems are far too tenderly human and felt to be pigeon-holed into faceless ethical principles. Maybe the best way to put it is that his writing comes from and arrives at an immense appreciation for humanity.

Any remembrance of Heaney would be remiss without delving into his elegies. One of his most famous poems, ‘Mid-Term Break’, recounts the death of the speaker’s little brother, killed in a car accident. The poem works with heartrending restraint, focusing the reader’s eye on the concrete minutiae of the tragic day while undercutting any hint of sentimentality. Likewise, in order to avoid leaning on any weak abstractions, Heaney brings a narrative approach to the poem, following the detailed progression of the day by shifting focus and scene with every stanza. And though the speaker refuses to wallow in the emotional mire of the boy’s death, Heaney hints at a palpable melancholy and mortality by filling the poem with memento mori: the bells knelling, the constant recognition of the time, the mention of a poppy (invoking a remembrance poppy).

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

Read the full poem.

The poem begins on a foreshadowing note with bells intoning through the infirmary, though the deft alliteration and subtle iambic pentameter contrast with the dark tone implied. Then again in the second stanza, he suggests so much while overtly telling so little: that this isn’t the first death the young family has dealt with, though it is perhaps the hardest; that “it was a hard blow”, a phrase with an awful irony to it, echoing the way in which the car collided with the boy.

Come the third to last stanza, we’re faced with the horrible brotherly reunion, wherein the speaker sees his younger brother “For the first time in six weeks. Paler now”, as Heaney still hints at the tragedy rather obliquely. The final two stanzas, however, are the kicker. The scene of him at his brother’s bedside is almost reminiscent of King Lear holding his deceased Cordelia in his arms – the boy’s injury seems so negligible he could just as well be sleeping in his cot. But nothing will bring him back.

The last line, of course, is the punch to the reader’s gut which the poem’s been building to all along. Set apart from the rest of the poem, the tactful wallop of the last line communicates the ineffable gravity of the poem – in the words of American writer Amy Hempel, the speaker is “fluent now in the language of grief”. And though the poem adopts a subtle iambic pentameter as well as some lyric alliteration, Heaney eschews any real rhyme scheme. There are, to be sure, slant rhymes throughout, but the absence of any perfect rhymes until that lethal last line works wonders for the poem. The meter provides a certain structure and rhythm without banking on lullabied rhymes that would hinder the poem’s starkness. Then when Heaney finally does go in for juxtaposition, he goes all in: contrasting the perfect rhyme of the final two lines with the terrible realization coupled with it.

‘Mid-Term Break’ has a quality you’ll find in much of Heaney’s poems, in that it feels so complete. It’s a remarkably balanced and concise poem, wasting not a word, with every syllable pulling its own weight and then some. More than that, there’s so much to be gleaned from the poem by someone who’s just dipping their feet in the poetry waters. It doesn’t deal in melodrama, doesn’t cop out by using abstract ideas instead of everyday images, doesn’t force the diction, meter or rhyme of the piece. It feels wholly organic. But perhaps most importantly, it cares absolutely for the subject as well as the reader. This is something a poet ought to always bring to the page, I think – this kind of urgent concern for the work itself, but also that the poem would bridge the gap between the writer and the person on the receiving end of the piece.

Exploring more of Heaney’s work

‘The Aerodrome’
‘Clearances’ (especially the ‘When all the others were away at Mass’ portion)

Kevin Coyne

Kevin Coyne is the American spring intern at The Poetry Society, and possibly still pinching himself he’s so thrilled to be working here. Originally from Boston, he’s in his third year studying literature and creative writing at Elon University in North Carolina. He writes mostly fiction and poetry. A story of his is being published in the 66th Issue of Elon’s literary magazine, Colonnades



Published April, 2015


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