Sixth sense, seventh heaven

Seamus Heaney

I’m interested in what happens when a poem manages to get up on its own legs, so to speak – how it develops its own capacity to move itself along and what then are its means of movement. In the happiest writing experiences, a state occurs in the writer and the material when, to quote the words of Robert Frost, ‘the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing’. Which is to say a sixth sense of possibility grows into a gleeful seventh heaven of reward. Or to put it in the terms used by William Wordsworth, in his sober but lucid account of the same phenomenon written two hundred years ago for the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on …

What Wordsworth is describing is a process that has three stages or levels of operation. First, there is the lived experience that precedes the business of writing: ‘the emotion’, as he calls it, whatever has gathered up in the poet’s mind and body and assumed an unaccounted-for significance, the whole complex that produces a sense that there’s something in there needing expression, ready to reveal itself as something else. Or you could think of the emotion as the poet’s ‘me-ness’, and say that the ‘me-ness’ wants to get turned into an ‘it-ness’, that the poet wants to know what he’s all about, wants the inchoate psychic matter to come forth as a contemplatable shape. And at that stage of wanting, of sensing a need for expression, the second stage has already been reached: the mind is becoming active in itself, the process of searching for equivalence is under way, and whatever happened in actual life to prompt the process takes second place to the writerly appetites it has prompted in the poet.

All of this is covered by Wordsworth’s succinct account: ‘the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind’. And so to the third stage, the actual writing, because, as Wordsworth adds, ‘In this mood, successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on.’ The actual writing is the simplest stage of the process, because once there is verbal purchase on the emotion, as Wordsworth calls it, or the dark embryo, as Eliot calls it, or the inspiration, as it has been traditionally called, the poem has established its biological right to life and will be seeking compulsively to flesh itself out in words.

These various stabs at saying what happens are made by poets, more or less off the cuff, but they echo and correspond to a more systematic, more philosophically worded account of the process by Jacques Maritain in his 1953 book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. In a chapter entitled ‘The Three Epiphanies of Creative Intuition’ Maritain proposes the following names for the three constituent movements of the whole business: first, he suggests, there is discovered a Poetic Sense or Inner Melody, and then this inclination or potential coalesces into Action and Theme, which result in, thirdly, the actual writing, what he chooses to call Number or Harmonic Expansion. Maritain, however, seems to be most concerned, as I am, with the second stage of his adumbrated process, the emanation of the action and theme from the original ‘poetic sense’. ‘A poem’, he declares (and one does not need to be a Thomist to agree), ‘has no will of its own, unless metaphorically. But in things which have no will of their own … there is a property that corresponds to what the will is in voluntary agents – namely, action.’

The action, Maritain insists, is not the servant of anything outside itself, not the vehicle of a pre-existent, paraphrasable meaning, and yet it is still hungry for theme, which he conceives of not as a topic or a subject to be addressed but as a potentiality discovered within the material:

The action and the theme are complements or objective reflections of the poetic sense: if they are not in consonance and unity with it, they mar the poem. They originate in creative emotion: without it they have no poetic existence. The idea of a theme can present itself to the mind independently of creative emotion: [but] it gives nothing if it does not pass through creative emotion; the theme itself, the meaning of the action, exercises its function in the poem only by virtue of creative emotion.

The last thing to be said about all this, but a vastly important thing, is that the three steps which for the sake of clarity are outlined here as a sequence probably occur within the poet as a simultaneity, an awakening of nerve ends and word-slips. Maritain calls this third part of the process ‘harmonic expansion’, and it’s the part we can actually trace in poets’ manuscripts, the trial-and-error word-search. Admittedly, this is bound to be a slower activity than the conceptual rush and flash of the moment when the unforeseen presents itself as the vividly attractive; and yet even in the ‘harmonic expansion’, there can be unexpectedly swift leaps and crystallizations.

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The poem, in other words, must be all of a piece, must grow its own legs, arise, take up its bed, and walk. Ideally, it will have that element of surprised arrival. But where will it have arrived from? From the poet’s reading? Yes. From the forgotten experience, whispering its tale, like Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’? Yes. From a deliberate exercise of verse-craft, like the Anglo-Saxon poet unlocking his word hoard? Yes. From spiritual journeying, like Emily Dickinson’s? Yes. From exaltation, like Yeats writing ‘The Cold Heaven’? Yes. From exhaustion, like Eliot writing ‘The Waste Land’? Yes.

Here, for example, is a poem that arrived unexpectedly from all those things and from God knows what else. It has gone through a certain amount of Maritain’s ‘harmonic expansion’, in that I know I made several revisions, but I also know from the drafts that the action and theme derived from a sixth sense of a subject, from what Maritain would have called the ‘poetic sense’. The words that arrived on the page came from a potential discovered in the given material. I had no plans for the poem, no designs on the reader, nothing to go on except a supply of images from the inner frond-forest. From the start, and out of the blue, there was a picture of a beggar at the threshold of a roofless cottage, a puddle of rain-water in the hearth, and a high cold sky with moving clouds. There was also an understanding that this was an image of the soul being called to judgement on the brink of eternity, what I had once learned to call ‘the particular judgement’ – as opposed to that final, general judgement in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. The particular judgement was a far lonelier affair, and the prospect of it both expanded and bewildered the consciousness of the child who was taught to expect it. And it is that sense of expansion and bewilderment and solitude that found its way into the poem.

Shifting brilliancies. Then winter light
In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep
A beggar shivering in silhouette.

So the particular judgement might be set:
Bare wallstead and a cold hearth rained into –
Bright puddle where the soul-free cloud-life roams.

And after the commanded journey, what?
Nothing magnificent, nothing unknown.
A gazing out from far away, alone.

And it is not particular at all,
Just old truth dawning: there is no next-time-round.
Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.

Remembered and unremembered reading, long forgotten but suddenly recovered places, an unexpected sureness of voice – all worked together here. The first draft was written down in the Reading Room of the National Library in Dublin on an afternoon in August 1988, on the day I completed the long task of annotating a selection of Yeats’s poems for The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. I may not have been exhausted, but there was a definite sense of release, of a pressure lifted, a light let in, and I’m sure that had something to do with the given-ness of the lines. A great sense too of the dimensions of Yeats’s achievement, the boldness of his imagining, the extravagance of his concerns with life after death, with the adventures of the soul when it leaves the body, with its ‘shiftings’, as he calls it one place.

At that time, I was more conscious of what spirit meant, since I had recently stood at the deathbeds of my mother and father and witnessed the pure change, simple, momentous, and mysterious, that happens at such moments. I had taken to saying that I felt my head was now bare to the universe, that the roof of childhood had been removed. And clearly, this new emotion and way of figuring had also entered the poem. I was aware when I was writing it, for example, that I was drawing at a great distance upon the medieval morality play Everyman, in which Death visits Everyman and commands him to take a long journey, but what I was not aware of was my unconscious dialogue with Yeats and the poem of his I mentioned earlier, ‘The Cold Heaven’.

Yeats introduced this poem on BBC Radio some time in the 1930s and the simplicity of what he said in the studio had made a deep impression on me. I had copied the words out of A.N. Jeffares’s Commentary on the Collected Poems and appended them to the poem in my Field Day selection. ‘The Cold Heaven’, according to its author, was his attempt to describe the feeling roused in him by the cold detached sky in winter. Which is one way of putting it, and a totally convincing way, but the poem has extra and inestimable dimensions:

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! When the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

Who could be surprised if gleams of unextinguished thought from that poem broke into another poet’s mind? The earliest draft I can find of my own winter sky poem begins:

The particular judgement. Winter light
Hard in a doorway, and on the stone doorstep
A beggar shivering in silhouette.
Great brilliant speed, greater unchangeableness.
Nothing magnificent, nothing unknown,
The not-me gazing out of the me-alone.

And then the next draft:

Brilliant tourbillons. Winter light
In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep
A beggar shivering in silhouette.

Not entered yet and yet having arrived.
A wallstead and a bare hearth rained into,
Soul-puddle where the slow bright world-clouds move.

And above this version I had written as a possible title the word ‘Shiftings’, the word which also features in Yeats’s occult vocabulary, and reappears in the final version of the first line:

Shifting brilliancies. Then winter light
In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep
A beggar shivering in silhouette.

The fact that two and a half lines of this first stanza remained constant throughout all the revisions is testimony, of course, to their rhythmical and phonetic rightness, and this rightness of the thing in the ear is in the end what poetry is all about. It’s what I love to attend to when I read and analyze poems by other poets, but when it comes to one’s own poems, it’s a job that should be done by somebody else.

The job I can do is to dig around the roots of memory and throw up some of the stuff that turned into images in the poem. In this case, a memory of myself at the age of three or four, standing on the doorstep of an old wallstead in the middle of the fields, looking at ragwort and grass-seed sprouting up between the broken flagstones of the floor, the piles of fallen-in rafters and thatch in the corners, a puddle on the hearthstone, and so on, with the big sky moving overhead. Feeling exposed, wide open, unprotected, windswept, and, if it is permitted to say so, riddled with light. As Robert Frost puts it in his vivid essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, ‘The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere.’

The great thing about the twelve lines I’ve been discussing is that they felt both finished and ready to be expanded upon. And by good luck I was in a position to dwell with them and let them suggest the next move. For if Maritain was right to say that a poem doesn’t have a will of its own, except metaphorically, he was also right to claim that it is instinct with a capacity for action, all set to be dictated to by its own inner workings. Happily, then, what was dictated to me by the unroofed wallstead was a second poem about being roofed in. That summer of 1988 I was blessed to be able to re-enter a house that had been precious when I moved into it with my wife and family sixteen years before. We had left Belfast and gone to live in the country south of Dublin, in Glanmore Cottage, from 1972 until 1976 – four years which marked a crucially important period of my life. Now, by the good grace of the former owner, Professor Ann Saddlemyer, I was able to purchase the cottage and repossess it as a place of writing, and those days of late summer and early autumn of 1988 were days of return to another precious energy source. Equally importantly, they were days when I had time to myself – I was just at the beginning of a sabbatical year from Harvard – and when I retreated under the slate roof and behind the stone walls of the cottage, it became a listening post where I could hear down into the very foundations of my sixth-sensed self. And so, on 11 September 1988, a second poem arrived, also twelve lines long, a kind of antiphonal response, really, to the line with which the first poem ended: ‘Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.’ This second one came quickly and needed very few changes:

Roof it again. Batten down. Dig in.
Drink out of tin. Know the scullery cold
A latch, a door-bar, forged tongs and a grate.

Touch the cross-beam, drive iron in a wall.
Hang a line to verify the plumb
From lintel, coping-stone and chimney-breast.

Relocate the bedrock in the threshold.
Take squarings from the recessed gable pane.
Make your study the unregarded floor.

Sink every impulse like a bolt. Secure
The bastion of sensation. Do not waver
Into language. Do not waver in it.

The final line and a half were both utterly unforeseen and utterly called for. There was a certain frolicsomeness in the opposing imperatives; they felt like a conundrum rather than a contradiction: ‘Do not waver / Into language. Do not waver in it.’ At any rate, the sportiveness of the thing brought me alive and all of a sudden it was clear that the diptych was itching to become a triptych. And the bit of language that offered a way ahead was the word ‘squarings’ in line 8, a childhood word that had presented itself unthinkingly, but that now seemed to require a gloss. ‘Taking squarings’ was schoolboy-speak for aligning oneself in a game of marbles, getting ready to take aim either at another marble or at one of the marble-holes, as described in the following lines:

Squarings? In the game of marbles, squarings
Were all those anglings, aimings, feints and squints
You were allowed before you’d shoot, all those

Hunkerings, tensings, pressures of the thumb,
Test-outs and pull-backs, re-envisagings,
All the ways your arms kept hoping towards

Blind certainties that were going to prevail
Beyond the one-off moment of the pitch.
A million million accuracies passed

Between your muscles’ outreach and that space
Marked with three round holes and a drawn line.
You squinted out from a skylight of the world.

So there it was. I had my triptych, but I had been roused into new possibility. There was no pre-existing design, but the given materials were stirring; the word ‘squarings’, for example, now suggested that I might try to do twelve of these twelve-liners, and since that didn’t seem impossible, I decided to try it. (The sequence would eventually grow to comprise four groups of twelve twelve-liners.) I sensed I was at last working in accordance with advice I had earlier given myself. In 1982 I had been bold enough to put the ghost of James Joyce into a poem called ‘Station Island’ and had written lines for him that were meant as ‘apt admonishment’ for myself: ‘Let fly’, Joyce counsels, ‘keep at a tangent,’

swim

out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo-soundings, searches, probes, allurements,

elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.

Joyce’s urging came at the conclusion of a poem where other shades had very different things to tell the protagonist. Several of the speakers had died in the course of the Northern Ireland troubles, including an IRA hunger-striker and two Catholics who had been victims of random sectarian assassinations. It was hard in those conditions to give oneself up to the frolicsome and the sportive, and the dialogues with the dead in ‘Station Island’ amounted to a questioning of poetry’s right to take pleasure in itself in such a dire situation. But the question had been worked through and the reward came with the plunge into subjectivity which the twelve-line poems effected. A great deal of their insouciance arises from their having escaped the shackles of the civic.

Put it like this: the poems I was now being given to write were turning out to be the poems that the Joyce-shade had been wanting me to write, so for a few months it was all go. I began to treat the twelve-line form as a sprint, to give myself a couple of hours to breast the tape. I thought of them in terms of speed and chance. I imagined the twelve poems being linked the way twelve splashes would be linked by a skimming stone hitting the surface of the water twelve times. I tried to make myself wide open to whim; for example, after the ‘squarings’ section, I started off another section with an image of three marble holes that an uncle of mine had thumbed into the wet concrete of a road when it was being constructed in the 1920s. He had done this the night before he sailed for Australia, and once the concrete hardened the thumb-marks were there to stay, and were still there when I was a youngster, little dark-eyed peepholes to the other side of the earth. ‘Three stops,’ as the poem called them, ‘to play / The music of the arbitrary on.’ And as it turned out, that phrase, ‘the music of the arbitrary,’ characterized the freedom and opportunism of the whole undertaking.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 8 Autumn 2002