Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us

Seamus Heaney‘s work rarely ingresses into politics. The one collection that does it most comprehensively was North, written in 1975 around the time he moved south. It contains some seminal pieces that capture northern nationalist attitudes towards the state, which continue to puzzle their southern counterparts, who’ve largely overcome their fear of state power. This snippet from Whatever You Say Say Nothing seems appropriate today:

By Seamus Heaney:

…The famous

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuverings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,

Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
Where half of us, as in a wooden horse
Were cabin’d and confined like wily Greeks,
Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.

  • Circles

    Reminds me very much of a converstion I had on Paddys night in a bar with a guy from “belfast”, dancin around who comes from where and “sure aren’t we all the same – and nothin like those southerners”.
    We’re all condemned to those madness. I really hope its not genetic.

  • barcas

    The BBC radio last week described Seamus Heaney as “an english poet”. Funny how the Brits lay claim to Irish excellence when it suits them.

    Ah well….what’s new??

  • barcas

    The BBC radio last week described Seamus Heaney as “an english poet”. Funny how the Brits lay claim to Irish excellence when it suits them.

    Ah well….what’s new??

  • slackjaw

    Well, he does write in English. If the Brit in question had wanted to lay claim to Irish excellence, surely he would have referred to Heaney as a British poet?

  • davidbrew

    There once was a poet called Seamus
    Who for some reason was rather famous
    The poems he created
    Were appallingly overrated
    He made better noise with his anus

  • slackjaw

    Such lyrical barbs of electrum!
    Still there surges an urge to correct ’em
    Yes, his passport is green
    but it was surely obscene
    to say ‘anus’, when you shoulda said ‘rectum’?

  • davidbrew

    Slackjaw is a sensitive soul
    My errors he’ll patiently thole
    But I’m sure he’ll agree
    T’would be terribly twee
    To say “rectum” when the best term is “hole”

  • barcas

    A pity mention of a great Irish poet inspires nothing more than obscenities from two would-be comedians.

    Heaney said quite clearly that he did not wish to be known as a “British” poet and I feel sure that would have encompassed the term “English”, slackjaw to note.

    I quote:

    “Be advised! My passport’s green
    No glass of ours was ever raised. To toast The Queen”

  • slackjaw

    barcas,

    He is a great English poet in the same way as Nabokov is a great English novelist and Samuel Beckett is a great French writer. I am suggesting to you that the broadcaster may have been referring to him in this vein, rather than laying claim to him.

    I am fully aware of that poem, hence my allusion in my own pathetic ditty.

    P.S.

    Don’t quote from poetry like that. It’s a poem, not from a letter to the Belfast Telegraph.

  • slackjaw

    davidbrew,

    I know when I’m beaten 🙂

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Davidbrew has a preference for ‘hole’,
    But the whole of a hole has a role
    In expelling gasses
    From odorous asses,
    Not poems from Heaney at all.

    I’ll get me coat…

  • seán

    It’s possible that describing Heaney as “English” is just a reference to the language he writes in, but i doubt it. Somehow, you can’t imagine any American writer being described as an “English” writer.

    Barry McGuigan was perhaps the most notorious example of “a great British boxer”; until he lost, when suddenly it “was a tragic night for the young Irishman”.

    In all this orgy of possessiveness by the English, it’s a pity they can’t do us all a favour and claim Bono

  • G2

    “Barry McGuigan was perhaps the most notorious example of “a great British boxer”; until he lost, when suddenly it “was a tragic night for the young Irishman”.

    The reverse can be said for the infamous British commander at the Battle of Waterloo 1815 Lord Wellington, who once said (on being reminded of being born Irish) that being born in a stable didn’t make one a horse

  • foreign correspondent

    ‘In all this orgy of possessiveness by the English, it’s a pity they can’t do us all a favour and claim Bono’

    Leave Bono alone, please! IMHO he is one of the greatest living Irish men, who has done more good than all of our politicians, of the Northern or Southern variety, put together.