The Hidden World of Poetry - Unravelling Celtic Mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry
Page Count: 148
Publication Date: Friday, October 18, 2013
Cover Artwork: ‘The Battle of Moytura’ by Hans Diebschlag – www.diebschlag.com
About this Book
‘A gifted commentator/close reader. “A hearer and heartener.”’ SEAMUS HEANEY
‘Adam Wyeth discloses the pulse of an unbroken tradition in poems that speak absolutely to the living moment. At once guide to a rich, hidden inheritance and informed celebration of the contemporary, here is a book that will illumine the mind and cheer the heart.’ Theo Dorgan
‘Wyeth’s essays excavate the intricate Celtic motifs running through his chosen poems with charm and precision. In doing so he performs the dual task of bringing less familiar work to the fore as well as illuminating new ways of reading old favourites.’ Josephine Balmer
In this unique book, Adam Wyeth unravels the many rich and varied ancient Celtic legends which run through contemporary Irish poetry. Each chapter begins with a poem by one of Ireland’s leading poets, followed by sharp, shrewd analysis of its making and references. As well as poetry’s inner workings, the reader will discover a wealth of Celtic culture – their gods, heroes and folklore – and its continuing role in shaping Ireland’s identity in the twenty-first century.
Celtic mythology is far from a dead or peripheral part of our history; its narratives and traditions are deeply intertwined into the fabric of our daily lives. As each generation re-visits these ancient tales, our personal and expanding lives offer fresh interpretations of these age-old myths.
Including poems by Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Bernard O’Donoghue, Paul Durcan, John Ennis, Desmond O’Grady, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Mary O’Malley, Paula Meehan, Patricia Monaghan, Paul Muldoon, Maurice Riordan, Leanne O’Sullivan and Matthew Sweeney.
With ink paintings by Miriam Logan – www.miriamlogan.com
Adam Wyeth was born in Sussex in 1978 and has lived in County Cork since 2000. His critically acclaimed debut collection of poetry, Silent Music (Salmon Poetry, 2011) was highly commended by the Forward Poetry Prize. He was a runner-up in the 2006 Arvon International Poetry Competition, a prize-winner in the 2009 Fish International Poetry Competition, commended in the 2012 Ballymaloe International Poetry Competition, and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, 2013. His work appears in The Forward Book of Poetry 2012 (Faber, 2011), The Best of Irish Poetry 2010 (Southword, 2010), Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland (Dedalus Press, 2010) and Something Beginning with P (2004). He has made two films on poetry, A Life in the Day of Desmond O’Grady, first screened at The Cork Film Festival, 2004; and a full length feature, Soundeye: Cork International Poetry Festival, 2005. Wyeth’s debut play Hang Up, produced by Broken Crow, has been staged at many festivals, including the Electric Picnic and the Galway Theatre festival. A member of Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools Scheme, Wyeth also runs a series of international online creative writing workshops at www.adamwyeth.com.
Read a sample from this book
Artistic symbols and myths speak out of the primordial, preconscious realm of the mind which is powerful and chaotic. Both symbol and myth are ways of bringing order and form into this chaos.
Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in County Derry and died on August 30th 2013 in Dublin. Robert Lowell called him ‘the most important Irish poet since Yeats.’ Many others, including the academic John Sutherland, have echoed the opinion that he was ‘the greatest poet of our age’. Upon his death, the Independent described him as ‘probably the best-known poet in the world’. His last words were made in a text message, to his wife Marie, in Latin, ‘noli timere’ (‘don’t be afraid.’)
This poem comes from his 2006 collection, District and Circle. Many of the poems address new conditions of a menaced twenty-first century. The fireman’s helmet was a gift given to Heaney at a poetry reading when he was lecturing at Harvard University. It had been gathering dust on the poet’s shelf for ‘twenty years,’ but in the wake of the September 11th attacks the helmet took on a different resonance and started to speak to the poet. A new life stirs within ‘the withered sponge’ and a world of allusions morphs the ‘fireman’s gift’ into something anciently heroic.
As a poet, Heaney came to maturity at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and is no novice when it comes to responding to tragedy and terrorism. However, rather than confronting the Troubles head on – where the poem is in danger of becoming a mere political slogan – Heaney has been masterful at approaching subjects at an angle, using myth, history and memory to dig deeper into the complex layers of Irish politics. The 2001 attacks saw a different kind of terror, one that affected him not as the Catholic Ulsterman, but as a citizen of the globe in the ‘Republic of Conscience’.
The poem begins with the B sound, ‘Bobby Breen’s.’ Alliterative verse, or head rhyme as it is sometimes known was an important ingredient in Old Irish and Old English verse, and here this poetic device becomes the backdrop to the poem. Notice how B reverberates throughout – bolstering the sprung rhythmic pulse to the piece (‘shock-absorbing webs beneath’/ ‘bud,’/ ‘beaten,’/ ‘rubble bolts out of a burning roof,’/ ‘broke’). Heaney’s poems are always full of music and onomatopoeia, banging and ringing words back to life like a blacksmith beating copper – so when they are read out loud, as all poetry should be, they feel physical.
While Heaney is comfortable using formal rhythms and rhymes, it is his love of finding the mot juste and creating chains of thick textural words that sets his work apart and which has made him so influential. Heaney’s texture and rhythm go hand in hand. The first three stanzas – rich with vivid description of the helmet – also use assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds: ‘tincture’ / ‘withered’ and ‘hair’ / ‘leather’. The feminine endings soften the ear momentarily, leaving us suspended in the air before hammering home with the harder dentals, ‘trimmed’, ‘ridged’, ‘hand-tooled’; giving us the feel of the copper crest being beaten into shape in front of us. The name ‘Bobby Breen’ is echoed rhythmically throughout the poem with a series of anapaests, a metrical foot consisting of two short (or unstressed) syllables followed by one long (or stressed) syllable. (Found in almost every line: ‘Bobby Breen’, ‘fireman’s gift’, ‘on its spread’, ‘withered sponge’, ‘leather-trimmed’, ‘steel-ridged’, ‘on my shelf’, ‘twenty years’, ‘of the tribe’, ‘afternoon’, ‘under it’, ‘shattering glass’, ‘rubble-bolts’, burning roof’, ‘hailed down’, ‘hatchet man’, ‘shield-wall’.) As well as giving a rhythmic structure to the poem, the repeated anapaests highlight and echo back to the plangent ‘Bobby Breen’ who is at the centre of this piece.
As soon as an object appears in poetry, it lends itself to symbolism. As Heaney describes the detail on the helmet, he unearths different layers in his mind and the scrutinized helmet begins to lose its everyday invisibility. The last word in the second stanza, ‘crown’ is an interesting choice, conjuring up royalty and titles; the poet though carefully replaces the word ‘Or better say the crest,’ perhaps so the reader is not confused with referring to a monarchy closer to home, the British Crown. But the ‘crown’ here is far more of yore. Heaney is referring to the ancient Anglo-Saxon kings and Celtic chieftains of Ireland. The professional poet or file in ancient Irish society had an extremely important role. Known as the Celtic praise poets, much of the poetry was made in order to flatter the kings. The file was the recorder of events and celebrated them in honour of the tribe, thus making them the closest person to the king.
This vivid description of the helmet also harks back to one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf, which Heaney translated towards the end of the millennium and was published in 1999, winning the 2000 Whitbread Book of the Year Award. In the epic poem the poet describes a gift of the helmet given to Beowulf by King Hrothgar. While some may consider the connection between the Anglo-Saxons and Ireland’s bardic tradition as slight, it is worth noting that in Heaney’s own words on the subject of his translation he sees a common thread. ‘Let Beowulf now be a book from Ireland,’ he writes in his essay, ‘Through-Other Places, Through-Other Times: The Irish Poet and Britain’. He continues, ‘Let it function in the world in the same way as the Venerable Bede tells us that books from Ireland functioned within the Britannic and Hibernian contexts of his times in the eighth century.’
The fourth stanza tells us the helmet has been on his shelf for ‘twenty years.’ This echoes a line from ‘Digging’, from Heaney’s groundbreaking debut collection, Death of a Naturalist, published exactly forty years before District and Circle. ‘Digging’ is Heaney’s most famous poem where he recalls his father digging in the potato field. ‘I look down/ Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds/ Bends low, comes up twenty years away.’ ‘Digging’ was Heaney’s declaration to the vocation of poetry – his first ‘maculate conception’, identifying himself as a poet. Choosing the ‘squat pen’ over the spade. Heaney has been digging through the layers of identity, both personally and culturally, ever since.
These aspects are at the heart of ‘Helmet’, a poem like ‘Digging’ that again explores his identity as a poet in a political context. However, this time a poet matured, becoming part of the fellowship of poets, receiving something like a ‘crown.’ (For his work on the front line of poetry, Heaney received The Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 – the highest title for a poet.) This slight return to his debut’s district sees him coming round full circle.
It is also ‘‘the headgear/ of the tribe’ as O’Grady called it’. The Headgear of The Tribe is the title of Desmond O’Grady’s selected poems. O’Grady is a poet with an appetite for the epic and has translated many works, one of his most important, an ancient Welsh epic covering a great battle, The Gododdin. This poem recalls a time at Harvard University, where O’Grady read Celtic studies and was a Teaching Fellow at the same time that Heaney was also teaching part of the year there. By mentioning O’Grady and his witticism – Heaney is paying homage to a senior hero of verse, and joining in the banter when he says, ‘right heroic,’ a pun on rhetoric, alluding to O’Grady’s poetic style and referring perhaps to Heaney’s own title at the time as Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory.
The fifth and sixth stanzas are the only two stanzas not containing the alliterative ‘B,’ the closest our lips get to that is with the ‘P’ in ‘poet’ – sitting smack bang in the middle of the stanza. This effect gives the word ‘poet’ extra impact. Heaney is not one to use the term lightly; to him it is a serious and sacred word, an honoured title – to be used sparingly.
To become a poet in ancient Celtic culture took several years of rigorous training and learning at bardic schools which were scattered all over Medieval Ireland. Both the ‘visiting fireman’ and the ‘fireman-poet,’ become interchangeable echoing the ancient role of the Irish poet. One of the requirements to be in the ancient Celtic warrior band of the Irish Fianna was not just to be a great warrior but also a skilled poet who knew several epics off by heart. Heaney therefore recognises the significance of the title. Just as the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon poets declaimed their poems about battle and bravery – Heaney has dutifully composed this piece as a tribute to the heroism of the 9/11 fire fighters. However, similar to his poetry on the Troubles, Heaney comes at an angle, using the heroic poem Beowulf and the ancient tradition of the Celtic praise poets to approach a subject in a way that is not obvious.
Another play on words hides in the title, ‘Helmet’ – ‘Hell’ and ‘met’ – in other words meeting hell. Hell, synonymous with fire, is something the New York fire fighters knew all too much about the day the Twin Towers collapsed in Lower Manhattan. Hell also conjures up Dante’s, Inferno in which the poet Virgil was the guide through hell and purgatory. The ‘fireman-poet’ is not just a protector and restorer of language but a hero then of the unconscious.
The final descriptions dramatically suggest the fire fighting experience of 9/11, but reads as if it could have come straight out of Beowulf. ‘Fire-thane’s shield’, a ‘thane’ in Anglo-Saxon England was a man ranked by the king as a military nobleman. Similar to the Fianna he fought with a war-board, or a shield. ‘His shoulder-awning’ is also a borrowing from Anglo-Saxon. The line of battle, in Anglo-Saxon poetry, was a shield-wall, and your comrade was called your shoulder companion. The alliteration of ‘hatchet man and hose man’ is also a form of kenning, a compound expression containing metaphorical meaning; widely used in Anglo-Saxon poetry. The last note or hammer on the anvil is ‘broke,’ Bringing us back alliteratively to where we began with ‘Bobby Breen’s.’
This heroic poem pays homage to our native poetic tradition of the poet-warrior being the recorder of ‘interesting times’ and explores how events change and shape our reality. Just as the helmet loses its invisibility through scrutiny, so do the true meanings and sounds of words tell their own story – as they are unearthed like old relics coming up from under layers of opened ground.