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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    Book Notes: A joy that catches ‘the heart off guard…’

    First, lines from two poems by Nobel Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), written in Warsaw in1945:


    “What is poetry which does not save

    Nations or people?”

    “In Warsaw”:

    “What are you doing here, poet, on the ruins

    Of St. John’s Cathedral on this sunny

    Day in spring?

    . . . . .

    I want to sing of festivities,

    The greenwood into which Shakespeare

    Often took me. Leave

    To poets a moment of happiness,

    Otherwise your world will perish.

    It is madness to live without joy.”

    It is this question, what is the function of poetry in the face of the devastation, the horrors, of war that Milosz sought to answer. How, he asked, is poetry “of present use?”

    This is the same question that haunted T.S. Eliot as he sat writing at his desk in the London Blitz of WWII, and that haunted Seamus Heaney, born a Roman Catholic in Protestant Northern Ireland and living through the violence, cruelties and betrayals, on all sides, that were the mark of The Troubles.

    “The soul exceeds its circumstances” was Czeslaw Milosz’s life-affirming response, born of a lifetime’s dedication to poetry.

    Heaney’s response is found throughout his poetry, but is most specifically addressed in the lectures titled “The Redress of Poetry” that he delivered when he was professor of poetry at Oxford between 1989 and 1994, ten of which were published in 1995, the year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    In redress we have a word freighted with many meanings, but, as Heaney explains in the title essay, it is this obsolete definition, taken from the OED, that is the defining theme throughout, “To set (a person or a thing) upright again…”

    In “The Door Stands Open,” his 2004 tribute to Czeslaw Milosz in The New Republic, Heaney writes of “the immemorial belief in the saving power of poetry” and “the delicious joy-bringing potential of art and intellect.”

    And as Milosz himself wrote, “poetry by its very essence has always been on the side of life.” (Redress p. 158). The very means by which “the soul exceeds its circumstances.”

    Here are lines from Heaney’s “The Swing”, a joyous memory of childhood and of his mother:

    “Fingertips just tipping you would send you

    Every bit as far….

    Not Fragonard. Nor Brueghel. It was more

    Hans Memling’s light of heaven off green grass,

    Light over fields and hedges, the shed-mouth

    Sunstruck and expectant, the bedding-straw

    Piled to one side, like a Nativity

    Foreground and background, waiting for the figures.

    And then in the middle ground, the swing itself

    With an old lopsided sack in the loop of it,

    Perfectly still, hanging like a pulley-slack,

    A lure let down to tempt the soul to rise.

    . . . . .

    In spite of all, we sailed

    Beyond ourselves.”

    Poetry that is “on the side of life,” that is “joy-bringing.” It is this sailing “beyond ourselves” that Heaney examines in his close reading of several of George Herbert’s poems.

    In “a pulley-slack/ A lure let down to tempt the soul to rise”, we hear George Herbert’s “The Pulley”, as well as “Prayer 1” - those “Church-bells beyond the stars heard.”

    The redressing joy that is found in Herbert’s intensely musical lyrics is the Latin “gaudium”, rejoice, praise. This is the essential element of George Herbert’s poetry that Heaney describes in the final paragraph of the first essay as “the redress of poetry at its most exquisite.”

    In his essay on Elizabeth Bishop, “Counting to One Hundred”, Heaney suggests that it is in her great poem, “The Moose,” that we find one of the most sublime examples of redress - that moment of mystery when, two thirds of the way into this perfectly controlled narrative of 28 six-line stanzas, the “otherworldly” moose appears “out of/ the impenetrable wood”:

    “Why, why do we feel/(we all feel) this sweet/sensation of joy?”

    Words that never lose their power to be heart-stopping, no matter how often you read them. This is poetry that, yes, “sets one upright again.”

    But let’s turn back, one more time, to “The Swing,” to “the shed-mouth/ Sunstruck and expectant, the bedding-straw/Piled to one side, like a Nativity/ Foreground and background waiting for the figures”, an image that recalls “this old Nativity” in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and A Concordance” - the transcendent final stanza:

    “—the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,

    an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,

    colorless, sparkless, fed on straw,

    and, lulled within, a family with pets.”

    Gerard Manley Hopkins offers us similar moments of gaudium, joy and praise in his pure hymn of redress - his sonnet “Spring”: (Elizabeth Bishop took this first line as the epigraph to her own lovely Spring lyric, “Cold Spring):

    “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring -

    When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

    Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush

    Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring

    The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

    . . . . .

    What is all this juice and all this joy?”

    But let us end with Seamus Heaney and “Postscript,” the final poem in The Spirit Level, published in1996, the year after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The first 11 lines of this 16-line lyric are one sentence that gathers ecstatic energy as it describes a shoreline and then an inland “slate-grey lake” that is


    By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,

    Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,”

    a sight to

    “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

    Belinda de Kay is director emeritus of Stonington Free Library.

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