Thursday, 13 September 2012

Seamus Heaney, David Harsent, and Weird Poetry Men Write For Their Wives

Tonight I went to a lecture by David Harsent on the poetry of Seamus Heaney. It is part of a series where writers speak about writers who have their portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. (Apparently David Harsent does, as well, although there was a slight ripple of laughter when the woman introducing Harsent said "...although his portrait is not on display right now." Harsent looked unfazed.)

Harsent focused in on female figures in Heaney's poetry, from his mother and aunts to his wife. I enjoyed the lecture partly because it was a mix of poems I knew well - 'Mossbawn: Sunlight', 'The Skunk' - and some I hardly knew, including 'Summer Home'. The latter is a really interesting portrait of a marriage under considerable strain while on holiday, which isn't really Heaney's usual territory. (I actually feel that Heaney just seems like a pretty normal man with pretty normal interpersonal relationships.)


I liked Harsent's close reading of this poem, its quiet inaction but also the reverence with which it moves across the ordinary-but-strange impressions of childhood, anchored by the ordinary-but-archetypal image of his aunt. You can see the sunlight touching the poem's objects, and the hands of his aunt.

The arc of the lecture travelled from 'Summer Home' to 'The Skunk', a poem I've loved for a long time. I think I read it shortly after reading 'The Otter', which is a similar strange, beguiling, erotic poem about his wife, pivoting on an animal image. I was probably in junior high when I first read these and they have always delighted me, but they are also pretty weird. I wonder what Heaney's wife thought when he showed them to her. 'The Skunk' is about romance revived by distance and by strange, intense mental and emotional connections.

It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.

(from 'The Skunk', Seamus Heaney)

Speaking of strange love poems, I was reminded of the supremely disturbing 'Spatchcock', one of David Harsent's own poems.

SPATCHCOCK (David Harsent)

David Harsent would have to be one of my favourite contemporary British poets. I've heard him read his superb poems about bees at a special event on that very subject, and most recently he read at the T S Eliot Prize event for 2012 - I was hoping he would win (he didn't, but for what it's worth I think he should have.)

The first time I heard him read was a few years ago, and I think it was at a Poetry London event. One of the poems which he read was 'Spatchcock'. In all honesty, poetry readings sometimes aren't that interesting. The poets are not always the best presenters of their own poems and sometimes the poems are a little too accomplished, reserved and emotionally dry to take me much anywhere. (That is partly why free wine is often provided, I am sure.) However, when David Harsent started reading 'Spatchcock' I think every jaw in the house went slightly slack and every eye widened at least a little. I was frankly shocked at first, before I could see where he was going with it (I had not read the poem before hearing it, and I was unfamiliar with the word 'spatchcock' - I think it's more English than North American.) Then I was faintly amused; but in any case, the power of the poem didn't leave me and it led me on to some of his other work - including the brilliant Night collection, which was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. Again, I have to wonder what his wife thought when she read 'Spatchcock'. Honestly, some poets...


  1. The topic "poems about/for wives" is a very interesting one. I liked MossBawn Sunlight, but I confess I was a bit shocked by Spatchcock. I imagine what it was like hearing the poet himself read it.

    Those are the risks of marrying a poet, I guess. Or any artist for that matter. This reminds me of a painting by Max Ernst, The AntiPope, where one of the strange horse headed figures is said to represent his wife Peggy Guggenheim! (

    Have a great weekend!

    1. Yes, I was sort of caught between being shocked and amused by 'Spatchcock'. I don't really like art that goes for shock value, but this one was clever, skilfull and kind of funny, despite all.

      I would have liked to link to 'The Skunk' or 'The Otter', but didn't find them online...I really recommend those poems, though, as they are a bit weird, but really quite beautiful and touching.

      Have a great weekend too!

  2. You wonder what Heaney's wife thought when he showed The Skunk to her: I'm not sure I'd want to show Heaney's poem to my own wife in case she thought I was going to write something similiar about her!
    This all touches on one of my concerns about writing: how honest do you have to be?
    I prefer to leave out identifying details with the aim of addressing universal themes e.g. writing about suicide without mentioning names or methods. Obviously it is possible to leave clues for people close to the subject matter.
    Heaney has also written about his children, by name: I think I'd prefer to protect my children by not using their names while still addressing those (sometimes humourous) universal themes.

    1. There are so many approaches to the personal/impersonal in poetry and art generally. I sometimes think Yeats was too personal. He really went on about himself and his place in Irish history, a lot. ;) And yet - his poetry is universal, because it is so brilliant and contains such insights that you don't have to have been [Anglo]-Irish and lived at the turn of the century to appreciate it. Still, we can't all be Yeats... A writer who is deeply personal but deeply abstract, on the other hand, is Paul Celan. I found that it did help a good deal to gain some knowledge of his life, but the emotions still transmitted through the power of the writing, without background knowledge.