Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 565

Seamus Heaney Reads “Death of a Naturalist” and His Nobel Lecture on the Power of Poetry

How poetry works to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness” and remind us that we are “hunters and gatherers of values.”

Beloved Irish poet, playwright, and translator Seamus Heaney (April 13, 1939—August 30, 2013) was the recipient of innumerable awards, including the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, and was noted in his lifetime as the best-read living poet in the world in the past few decades.

To celebrate his legacy, here is Heaney’s exquisite reading of the title poem from his 1966 anthology Death of a Naturalist (public library), followed by his timeless wisdom on poetry, politics, and culture from his Nobel acceptance speech.

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Nearly thirty years later, in 1995, Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Unlike Hemingway’s laconic acceptance speech, Heaney delivered an epic 51-minute lecture, found in Nobel Lectures: From the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2006 (public library), reflecting on his influences, the role of politics in poetry, and his “journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival … turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination.” Heaney begins by crediting poetry’s enormous personal and cultural gift:

Poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference. . . . I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.

Despite having come of age in violence-torn Northern Ireland, an experience that profoundly shaped his voice as a poet, Heaney acknowledges his effort to “make space in [his] reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous,” and illustrates poetry’s magnificent power as a tool for expanding our scope of empathy with an example from Homer:

At the sight of the man panting and dying there,
she slips down to enfold him, crying out;
then feels the spears, prodding her back and shoulders,
and goes bound into slavery and grief.
Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks:
but no more piteous than Odysseus’ tears,
cloaked as they were, now, from the company.

Even to-day, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer’s image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman’s back and shoulders survives time and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable.

The form of the poem, Heaney argues, only amplifies its power to stir us into our own humanity:

The form of the poem … is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.

Two years later, Heaney revisits the subject in this lengthy Paris Review interview, taking it a step further to explore the political power of the poetical — a power of indirect but monumental impact:

I think the poet who didn’t feel the pressure at a politically difficult time would be either stupid or insensitive.


Debate doesn’t really change things. It gets you bogged in deeper. If you can address or reopen the subject with something new, something from a different angle, then there is some hope. … People are suddenly gazing at something else and pausing for a moment. And for the duration of that gaze and pause, they are like reflectors of the totality of their own knowledge and/or ignorance. That’s something poetry can do for you, it can entrance you for a moment above the pool of your own consciousness and your own possibilities.

Thank you, Seamus, for half a century of entrancing us above our possibilities.


William Faulkner’s Little-Known Jazz Age Drawings, with a Side of Literary Derision

From the sartorial to the satiric, or how the award-winning author’s youthful pretensions earned him a helping of high-brow mockery.

The latest addition to luminaries’ secret talents in a surprising discipline — including Richard Feynman’s sketches, Dr. Seuss’s wartime propaganda, and Marilyn Monroe’s poetry — comes from none other than William Faulkner. As if it weren’t already pleasantly disorienting to learn that he penned a little-known children’s book with a kooky inception, it turns out the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning author also had a deftness for drawing.

In 1916, as he was about to turn twenty, Faulkner began contributing poems and sketches to the Mississippian, the literary magazine at Ole Miss — the University of Mississippi, in which he would enroll three years later for a brief three-semester stint before dropping out in 1920. But Faulkner continued to draw for the magazine until 1925 — shortly before he penned the aforementioned little-known children’s book while courting his future wife — even earning small commissions for his drawings, largely inspired by Aubrey Beardsley, bearing that distinct Jazz Age swanky sensibility and reminiscent of Henry Clarke’s sensual 1919 illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, with a twinge of Goreyana. The drawings were published only once, in William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry (public library; public domain), an out-of-print anthology released months after Faulkner’s death in 1962 by The Atlantic Monthly’s imprint.

But in Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner (public library), Philip Weinstein argues that the drawings were merely part of Faulkner’s budding pretensions — which included claims to have served in the British Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, which he never actually did:

During the postwar years … Faulkner remained in aggressively role-playing mode. Following the initial season of sporting his unearned war uniform — worn not only on ceremonial occasions but at dances and on golf courses as well — he settled into an equally self-conscious role as a special student at the university. He took courses in English, Spanish, and French, but he was better-remembered for his cultural and sartorial pretensions. Earlier, his expensive tailored suits had earned him the title “The Count.” Now his more elaborate costuming — replete with cane, limp, and swagger — elicited from his university peers the derisive term “Count No ’Count.” Seemingly descent from Parnassus and returned from war-torn France, Faulkner maintained his façade of imperturbability. He published poems in the university literary magazine, the Mississippian, as well as contributed elegant, Beardsley-inspired drawings.

Indeed, his drawings pushed his already irked peers over the edge and an orchestrated high-brow mockery ensued:

Annoyed classmates eventually refused to take his cultural pretensions lying down. The title of one his poems — a translation of Paul Verlaine’s “Fantoches” — was misprinted in the Mississippian as “Fantouches.” That title and the poem’s most famous line — “la lune ne garde aucune rancune” — soon generated a satiric response. There appeared in the same magazine a counter-poem — “Whotouches,” described as “Just a Parody on Count’s ‘Fantouches’ by Count Jr.” — and it ended thus: “how long the old aucune raccoon.” Journalistic ripple effects continued, and a month later the Mississippian published “Cane de Looney” written by one “Peruney Prune.”

And yet the drawings, taken in and of themselves, are undeniably lovely.

Should you be so lucky, you might be able to snag one of the few surviving copies of William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry still floating around. Else, there’s always a voyeuristic look back at Faulkner’s other secret talent.

Open Culture Lit Hitchhiker


Rare Book Feast: John Christopher Jones’s Seminal Vintage Vision for the Future of Design

Sowing the seeds of human futures, one pioneering worksheet at a time.

More than two years ago, Nate Burgos of Design Feast brought us the first installment of Rare Book Feast — an ongoing video series celebrating the timeless joy of books in the era of digital ephemera and spotlighting yesteryear’s out-of-print gems. Now, he’s back with the second installment: Design Methods: Seeds of Human Futures (public library) by John Christopher Jones, the very first professor of design at Open University, originally published in 1970 — a seminal treatise exploring the process of design and its impact on countless facets of society.

From practical strategies for generating ideas, complete with worksheets, to a bigger-picture vision for areas as wide-ranging as urbanism and the relationship between people and objects, the methods Jones examines were devised or borrowed from different disciplines in response to “a world-wide dissatisfaction with traditional procedures,” seeking to offer novel insight for all those “concerned with creative behavior and with technological change” and framing design as a powerful tool for public decision-making.

Three decades later, Jones followed up with The Internet and Everyone (public library) — an even rarer gem, featuring a remarkable series of letters from the dawn of electronic communication, in which Jones evolves his thinking on human-dependent technology as he explores the strange new immediacy of information networks.

Design Methods was reprinted in 1992 and is thus still available, but at $93 for a paperback and a whopping $85 for an ebook version, which instantly renders it the most expensive Kindle book I’ve ever encountered, one has to wonder whether we need a separate category for books that aren’t quite out-of-print, but rather out-of-reach such baffling reasons as publishers pricing the unlimited resource of bits the same way that limited atoms are priced.


View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated