Requiescat in pace, Seamus Heaney

I just learned that Seamus Heaney died today. I realize that much of Heaney’s acclaim and fame is as a contemporary poetry, as one of the most important Irish poets since W. B. Yeats — and rightfully so — but he’s also near and dear to the medievalist’s heart for his translations of medieval poetry. On that score, he’s most known for his Beowulf, of course, which has allowed us medievalists the rare opportunity to teach a New York Times best-seller. But his Beowulf wasn’t just popular; it was beautiful and as moving for the modern general reader as for the studied medievalist. (Indeed, a friend of mine, who regularly claims she hates poetry, is a fan of his Beowulf, and wrote on Facebook: “I actually said out loud ‘oh no,’ when I heard on NPR this morning. I don’t usually do that for poets.”)  As many of my medievalist friends on Facebook have been noting, in many different ways, he realized that fidelity to the past and attentiveness to the present are not mutually exclusive positions. Here are his words from part of the funeral of Beowulf, which now seem fitting for Heaney himself:

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
and cherish his memory when that moment comes
when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.

But Beowulf isn’t the only medieval work Heaney translated. More recently, he produced a volume of the work of the late medieval Scottish poet, Robert Henryson. And one of my favorite of his translations has always been his “Pangur Bán,” a 9th century Irish poem that has been translated again and again by many a modern Irish poet. In fact, in his translator’s notes on the poem (which you can read here), Heaney talks about how it’s one of the canonical poems upon which Irish poets try their hand as part of their work to have “learned the trade.” And of course it is, because it’s a poem about writing — and what poet doesn’t like a meta-poem? — and it also might suggest a translator, or at the very least an interpreter, of ancient texts (although the speaker could also be a scribe who copies texts). So any translation of it adds another layer to the textual community across the centuries. Heaney’s translation seems to be acutely aware of that connection across time, that mirroring, mise-en-abyme effect. It’s that meaningful connection with the past that I want my students who study medieval literature to have for themselves, so I have sometimes started off the semester of a medieval lit class with Heaney’s “Pangur Bán.”  Strangely, Heaney says he might not have tried his hand at it if he hadn’t been commissioned to for Poetry magazine, which surprises me a little, because it seems so suited to him. Certainly, now, the final couplet — “Day and night, my own hard work / Solves the cruxes, makes a mark” — seems a fitting epitaph for his work as both a poet and a translator, solving the cruxes of medieval Irish, English, and Scottish poetry and life in Northern Ireland alike, and certainly making a mark.

But enough from me. Let me leave you with “Pangur Bán,” as translated by Seamus Heaney (although I can’t get the formatting right — either I lose the spaces between the stanzas or I lose the way Heaney indented the final two lines of each stanza):

From the ninth-century Irish poem

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.

More than loud acclaim, I love
Books, silence, thought, my alcove.
Happy for me, Pangur Bán
Child-plays round some mouse’s den.

Truth to tell, just being here,
Housed alone, housed together,
Adds up to its own reward:
Concentration, stealthy art.

Next thing an unwary mouse
Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.
Next thing lines that held and held
Meaning back begin to yield.

All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.

Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,
Pangur Bán has learned his trade.
Day and night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.

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Put your hands in the air like you just don’t…know

So I did that thing where you pretend you don’t know something in order to get students to show what they know.  At least I think it’s a thing — I read it on a blog once, somewhere, one day, and now that I’ve done it, too, that makes it a thing, right?

Anywho, this was in my intro to literary study class, and we’re doing the unit on poetry, and people clam up when we do poetry, even though I think poetry can be so much easier than more narrative modes (it’s shorter, you can “cover” it all, and it’s often playful and clever and invites you to generate readings). But, you know, it’s technical (or it can be), it takes liberties with language (or plays with the liberties it gives you), it’s sometimes purposely evocative without being concrete, and it’s often both elusive and allusive. That all adds up to scary or challenging or, for some students who haven’t yet realized that there’s more to literature than “story,” pretentious and precious.

But yesterday, all sorts of people started talking who hadn’t previously talked, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I pretended not to know what certain strings of imagery were trying to convey in a poem we were doing. I even misinterpreted a word (one with multiple denotations) on purpose. And students jumped into the wide gaping hole I left open for them and straightened us all out (all very politely, actually).  I started by saying something like, “I want to talk about this line, which I find really beautiful, but don’t know what to do with. What does it mean?  And I mean that in the sense of, ‘No, really, I have no idea what it means.'”  And later, as we got talking, I said, “I think this word means X, rather than Y. Let’s go with that.” And then, as discussion progressed, a student said, “Actually, I think it might make more sense as Y, because then…” and she opened up an oblique part of the poem that was related to the poem’s imagery, but not in any obvious way. And I said, “Oh, yeah, then that makes sense of [its immediate context],” and then other students chimed in and said, “And so then….” and “And also…” and away we went!

Whew!  I wasn’t sure it would work and I’m not sure I could do this all the time — one does have to establish some authority and knowledge, even in a class where you’re teaching the basic skills of the discipline — but I might try it on a regular basis in my gen ed poetry class next semester.  Of course, if I do it too much, students might catch on.  We’ll see.

So, have you ever ceded your authority in order to get students to seize theirs?

ETA:  Hey, it’s my Blogiversary!  I’ve been blogging for — gulp! — 7 years now! Wait, *how* is that possible?? (Actually, my original blogiversary is a few days earlier, but I deleted those posts here, so now the oldest post is from Sept. 5, 2005.)

>You know you’ve been a bad blogger when…

>…Michael Bérubé wonders where you’ve gone and has to post Middle English poetry to get your attention.

Normal blogging will resume, I swear, as I am now fully and officially and totally ON SABBATICAL!! Hooray!! In the meantime, here’s some Bérubé-inspired play-along fun: using “Sumer is icumen in” (see Bérubé’s post) and Ezra Pound’s parody as your inspiration, write a poem in the comments that begins “Sabbatical is icumen in.”

>Do you hear what I hear?

>When I was on the top of the the hillside perch of Castle Carreg Cennen in Wales (pictures of it in this post), I made a little video with my camera not for what you can see, but what you hear. In that video you can hear sheep baa-ing and you can see them move in the field some 400 feet below. You also hear, incidentally, the motorway in the distance and the air moving past my compact digital camera’s miniscule microphone.

I wanted to post the video for you, but the direct Blogger video posting tool won’t allow over 100 MB, and my clip is just over that (and I don’t have any editing program to cut it, alas). It’s just as well, since listening to sheep baa isn’t very exciting, and you don’t really have to see and hear the clip to get what I want to say about it.

At the time we were there visiting the castle, someone remarked that the sound of the sheep was the sound of medieval power — the lord of the castle could look around below him and not only see what he controlled, but also hear it as well, maybe even hear every word spoken down there. At the time, I thought, “Hm. Yes.”

But later, upon reflection, I thought, “Wait. No.” If Carreg Cennen was ever a bustling castle, even if it only served defensive purposes, and not as a full time residence (and unlike Kidwelly, it had no town grown up around it), it would have been full of its own noises. Those noises might have easily drowned out the sound of sheep just as surely as modern mechanized noises could. After all, where I stood when I shot that video was where the former outer ward lay. In the outer ward would have been the stables, blacksmiths’ and armourers’ workshops, the lime kiln (its ruins are still there) and all sorts of general hustle and bustle. Would you have been able to hear the sheep above that clamor?

I’ve been a little obsessed with the sounds of the Middle Ages lately, not in any way that I’m going to write about it professionally (which is probably good, because I hear Claire Sponsler *is* writing about it), but just in a musing sort of way that I sometimes bring up in class. I think some of my students assume that the Middle Ages was a quiet and still place — like Castle Carreg Cennen today — so I like to draw their attention to noisiness in the literature, whether it’s noise being depicted in literature (the jingling of the bells on the Monk’s bridle in the Canterbury Tales, for instance, both described and imitated by the poetry), or the kinds of environmental noises one might encounter while experiencing medieval literature such as the York plays (church bells, the pageants at the stations before and after the one where they were watching, other playgoers, etc.), or the noise of the literature itself as it was declaimed or read aloud. This interest was spurred long ago by my interest in drama, but also by the “Medieval Noise” cluster of Exemplaria (Autumn 2004, no longer available online, alas), which included an introduction by Jeffrey J. Cohen with a title, “Kyte oute yugliment: An Introduction to Medieval Noise,” taken from one of my favorite moments in medieval drama, where the Herod of the York plays breaks down into utter nonsense in the face of Christ’s silence.

But only recently has the interest risen to the level of obsession. And lately I’ve been thinking of medieval sound as ghosts. One of my friends suggested I might mean echoes, but I really mean ghosts. Sound travels in waves, right? So once those sheep baas reached me up on the crest of Carreg Cennen, the sheep who made them might no longer be baaing. They could, theoretically, have uttered their last baa, and I might be hearing it in past tense, so to speak. And so when I or my students read Chaucer aloud in my class, and read of that Monk’s bridle “Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd,” even though our reconstruction of Middle English is an approximation at best, there’s a sense of a very old sound traveling across time and space, perhaps distorted by the distance it has traveled, but reaching my students and me nonetheless, haunting us in a way.

But it’s not just medieval literature that’s ghostly. In a sense, all poetry consists of ghosts, for all poetry deals in some way with sound (well, good poetry does) and asks to be read aloud. And having already been written, each subsequent reading, even by the poet him- or herself, is a bit of the past coming forth to the listener in the present. Every reading of a poem is a little bit haunted.

What do you think?