Irish poet Seamus Heaney in a 1992 poem tells the story of a drive to the ocean, where he found two contrasting and breathtaking scenes. Then, leaving aside religious language, he speaks metaphorically of an awakening of the inner life.
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 lightening of 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 or 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
The postscript comes, it seems, after a letter to a friend. The poet gently opens a question about the friend’s hectic, unsettled pace, a pace that has become customary in our society. From the first line, he plays with the reader’s experience, concept, and language of time: “Sometime, make time . . . .” We are slightly displaced, enough to wonder whether time is the sort of thing we can make. Then the poem becomes an invitation: come and see. We are told where and when to go and offered a vivid description of two glorious scenes occurring simultaneously on opposite sides of the road.
If we identify with the description, we can agree that, if we came upon such a pair of dazzling scenes, we, too, might think of stopping to try somehow to capture them, to take in the wide space that exceeds what we can take in at any one time. But the poet is not telling us to stop, since that would be chasing the impossible. Now the poet begins using the word “you” to imply a generality that includes himself; he is not claiming to be above the distortions to which everyday life is vulnerable. Hectic living modifies what it means to be a human being. We are not merely in a hurry: we are a hurry. Familiar and strange things pass through us in a jumble without our savoring them.
The poet’s friendly command to seek out the beauties of nature is, more generally, an invitation to go where we may be surprised by a gentle power that opens us to what we typically do not recognize or feel. The poem gives the reader the chance to experience something analogous to the wonders of nature: the poem itself can catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
What’s your favorite poem? What does poetry do for you? How can we live poetically?