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Seamus Heaney's poetry workshop

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Peter Gebhardt |  07 August 2017

 

Seamus Heaney’s Poetry Workshop

(Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1979)

I found years on that my Birth Certificate

And Christening Documents spelt out a nominal fate

Of which I was totally unaware,

Dragging in English, Irish, German lines of past blood,

Like good stock,

Corriedales and merinos of good fleece.

So thus I read,

“Sheamus Peter Brock Gebhardt”

Curious that I was never told,

Just expected to inhale the linguistic fold,

Curiouser” still that Sheamus was “Irish for James”

But misspelt. Scotch Whiskey perhaps …

 

One line used to say, “We are pioneers you know.”

Another would take the branch-line that came 

In England’s south: Drakes and Brockmans coupled;

And then that brave girl Grace Bussell riding the surf

To pull out the colonists in their pretty flounces.

It was no wonder that a signal-man was needed,

Someone to make meaning of all the intersection and junctions,

A points’ muse would do.

 

Mid-life I found him. Poetry.

And Seamus accepted Sheamus,

I never uttered

I listened deep

We ate oysters

at “One Potato, Two Potato” 

(very Irish when you think about it)

The girls were intense

He gave me an “A”,

 

So I went away and began

To do what he had called me to do,

Seize the word and make palpable

The lives and lines we take,

All different but all joined.

 

What’s in a name?” you may ask,

I don’t really know,

But for the time being, for now,

I’ll go along with what I was given,

Contradictions, complexities, conundrums and all.

Identity is, as clichés make clear, a journey,

From beginning to end.

Names are but baggage, taken on 

Or in the goods van.

 

It’s wonderful if writing is one of the tracks.

 

Saleyards and Hats

It was sale day

Holding his hands we would tag along.

It was all noise and smell

An auctioneer, hands, voice and hat, 

cajoling and cudgelling the buyers.

What am I bid? Fine strong two-year olds, 

What am I bid? You won’t see them again.

Gimme a bid. Gimme a bid.”

Then “done, all done, done, all done

Sold to the man in the Akubra hat,

The one that the Prime Minister wears.”

 

 

We moved on from pen to pen with the mob

Sheep shit and cowpats as dung-soft carpet 

Dust and sun, dogs bark, ewes bleating. 

Everywhere tongues hung dryly,

Prices were up, prices were down

It didn’t make much difference,

The pub was near and the beer was cold,

And things were always crook in the bush.” 

Poor farmers, sometimes they had to struggle,

To struggle, to keep alive the ‘hard-done-by’ voice. 

 

Of course, if you turn an Akubra upside down,

You have an open-cut mine.

 

The Most Significant Day in Australian History”

Trespass is made legal

Bare footprints in the sand, toe-clear,

Crushed by heavy boot-prints.

The Governor has stepped ashore,

Powder blue powder pink

Patent leather shoes with gold buckles

Parrots twitter gaily, dragonflies zoom the silver heat

The water sparkles, the tank stream trickles.

 

Chivalry tamed savagery

The air was filled with petitions

prayers

hymns

and anthems

day by day the axe severed

God save the King’

Well may God save the King!’

But what about the Governor?’

The wind begins to sing with spears 

The sand blushes with blood

The language tides are changing,

The wounds are still bleeding.

 

Treaties are a treatment for wounds I’m told.

 

it’s rather silly to think we can repeat

The Sermon on the Mount’, but

Faith and belief in our true past - and the truth of it,

Might just help us

Get nearer the peak

And what a wonderful view!

 

 

The young man on the bicycle

 

When you think about it

everything was always contingent,

but now it seems so clear,

and when you see what happens,

for something always happens,

you know that you are also contingent.

No more so than when you see

riding a bike at high speed a young man

erect in the seat, helmeted, handlebars

untouched. Then you can turn

to the hope of capturing the moment

admiring the grace of what you

could not do, not envying, just relishing

that there are and have been

many occasions and beauties, art and artifice

to act as shields against doubts and despair

which only grow because we allow them.

The young man on the bike knew

where he was going and what he could do

to get there. It was the poise and grace

of a special artistry and skill,

the sun shone down on his motion.

 


Peter GebhardtPeter Gebhardt is a retired school principal and judge. His most recent book is Black and White Onyx: New and Selected Poems 1988–2011. These poems are being published posthumously.

 



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Submitted comments

Thanks for the poems and for the reminder that the sacred work of poetry is one of revelation. A great blessing.

Alex Nelson 08 August 2017

"Names are but baggage". Once upon a time that was so true in Northern Ireland. Or as the Orangemen liked to say - Ulster. Some names were a dead giveaway - Sean and Seamus were obviously Catholic; Harold and William were obviously non-Catholic. All that has changed now. I don't quite know when or how or why it happened but I would like to think that Seamus Heaney through his poetry and teaching made the Irish look at themselves with a bit more honesty, open-mindedness and a willingness to change. Peter Gebhardt is a poet whose works deserve to be better and more widely known.

Uncle Pat 09 August 2017

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