Seamus Heaney: Bags of enlightenment

Two decades ago, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes collaborated on a landmark poetry anthology. Six years ago - a year before Hughes died - they renewed their partnership. Together, Heaney says, they hoped to wake the sleeping poet in every reader, and to combine learning with pleasure

When my wife and I lived in Belfast in the late 1960s, our neighbours were an elderly couple called Wilson. In those days we had two toddlers in the house and they used to spend as much time with the Wilsons as they did at home. And one of the things Mrs Wilson used to repeat to the elder of them offers a good way into this discussion. "Michael," she would tell him, "you and Christopher are growing up, Granda Wilson and I are growing down, and your daddy and mammy are standing still."

Mrs Wilson's way of seeing things has a bearing on the teaching of poetry and on any consideration of the part literature might play in the classroom or in the culture generally. To what end, after all, do we teach literature, if not for the present delight of those who are growing up? But we also teach it for the future nurture of the mature person, the person "standing still". And for the tranquil restoration - perhaps the disturbing recollection - of the person "growing down". We teach it for the now of perception and for the then of reflection.

When Ted Hughes and I edited the poetry anthologies that eventually appeared as The Rattle Bag (1982) and The School Bag (1997), we thought along these lines and made our choices accordingly. The books did not set out to be textbooks but they still were part of what might be called the educational-services industry and were intended as an intervention. The Rattle Bag was compiled in the conviction that poetry can be regarded as an ad hoc enrichment, available to all comers at all stages of their life, whereas The School Bag presented it more as a body of literature that can be approached deliberately and consciously, in order to understand its inner relations and development, the way it is always growing up yet seeming to stand still.

It's probably worth remarking at the outset that Ted and I had been educated at schools and universities where there was still an adherence to Matthew Arnold's faith in literary culture as a means towards the general dissemination of sweetness and light. Our teachers still proceeded on the basis of the humanist wager. They and we operated in the faith that literary and cultural endeavour was conducted in a disinterested spirit. It was a less sceptical world where the word "higher" in the term "higher education" was still credited and where the word "education" was respected in and of itself because it promised to raise what Robert Frost once called "the plane of regard".

As editors, in other words, we were both products of a system that was fundamentally the one established by Renaissance humanists and grammarians in the 16th century. For all the revision of syllabi and inflection of the educational aims that had occurred in the intervening 400 years, there was one respect in which the 20th-century schools we attended resembled those that the Elizabethan authors in our anthologies would have attended 400 years earlier: we were still expected to fill our minds with what was on offer from the past, to remember it, to prove by examination that we retained it, and to prepare ourselves to think, feel and act in accordance with it during the years to come.

Moreover, the road we had travelled through English literature in our A-level years in the 1940s and 1950s was still the one being travelled by teenage students in the 1970s and 80s. And along that road all of us would have studied, typically, a bit of Chaucer - probably the "Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales or "The Nun's Priest's Tale"; a couple of Shakespeare plays; a selection of Metaphysical poets; a book or two of Paradise Lost; an 18th-century novel; a selection of Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Keats enjoying the most favour; a Jane Austen novel, a Brontë, a Dickens, a Hardy; some Tennyson, maybe; some Hopkins; some first world war poetry; some Waste Land, maybe.

Essentially, then, we older people who were editors and the younger people for whom we were to cater had travelled the same poetry route. But now, simply by reason of age and experience, Ted and I had encountered much work we wished we had encountered earlier, when we were at school. As writers, moreover, we also knew that the humblest and most unlikely material could lie behind the officially sanctioned selections in the prescribed texts and we were therefore prepared, as anthologists, to lie down with Yeats, where all the ladders start, in the old rag-and-bone shop of the heart - that is to say, in the unofficial as well as the official cultural deposits.

There was, however, something official-sounding about the book that was named on our first Faber contract. We had agreed to compile a volume called The Faber Book of Verse for Younger People - a title that seems to carry some sort of educational health warning - but once we got going, we discovered that enjoyment rather than improvement would be our first criterion. Our advice to ourselves was to look for things that we'd have liked to have been introduced to early on. And for that reason much familiar canonical work was not included, since we took it for granted that our putative audience would also have had a chance to know it already. No Shakespeare sonnet appeared, for example; no George Herbert; no Milton; no Tennyson.

On the other hand, much that we did include was decidedly non-canonical: nonsense rhymes, ballad-type poems, riddles, folk songs, rhythmical jingles of all sorts. If the contract said we were doing The Faber Book of Verse for Younger People , the book in our heads was something closer to The Fancy Free Poetry Supplement . Its epigraph might have been another phrase of Robert Frost's - "the playthings in the playhouse" - or another memorable declaration of Yeats's to the effect that you can disprove Hegel but not the Song of Sixpence. In general, our first principle was that enounced by Wordsworth in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads , which he called the grand elementary principle of pleasure. But devotion to that principle did not entail an abandonment of the reality principle. Far from it. The anthology as it finally emerged abounds in sombre insights. We favoured poems with the simplicity of cartoons and the emotional force of proverbial wisdom. What we were after was some combination of rareness, seriousness and unexpectedness - as in William Blake's "The Angel that presided o'er my birth":

The Angel that presided o'er my birth
Said, "Little creature, form'd of joy and Mirth,
"Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth."

And here's another with the same kind of mature, naif, off-centre centrality of vision that we favoured, a translation of a poem called "The Earthworm" by 20th-century Swedish poet Harry Martinson:

Who really respects the earthworm,
the farmworker far under the grass in the soil.
He keeps the earth always changing.
He works entirely full of soil,
speechless with soil, and blind.
He is the underneath farmer, the underground one,
where the fields are getting on their harvest clothes.
Who really respects him,
this deep and calm earth-worker,
this deathless, grey, tiny farmer in the planet's soil.

In spite of what I say about the kind of poems we favoured, we didn't write down a mission statement. We followed our noses and our memory. Without much consultation we each made a pile of photocopies, an unpremeditated, non-programmatic bundle of work that rang true to our older ears but that would be, we hoped, equally and pleasurably audible to younger ones. And with certain authors we allowed our prejudices and favouritisms free rein. Since Ted had done selections of Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, he let himself loose with them, as I did in the selection of Wordsworth and poems from the Irish; and we allowed heavier representa- tions for Blake, Lawrence and Whitman than would be usual in British or Irish anthologies.

In the end, the volume was too abundant, too frolicsome and too unruly to go by the rather headmasterly title in the contract, so all of a sudden Ted suggested we call it by the name of a strange roguish poem translated from the Welsh of Dafydd ap Gwilym. It's about an instrument that sounds more like an implement, a raucous, distracting, shake, rattle-and-roll affair that disturbs the poet and his lover while they lie together in the greenwood. In the words of the translator, Joseph Clancy, it becomes a noisy pouch perched on a pole, a bell of pebbles and gravel, "a blare, a bloody nuisance". We were wanting to serve notice that the anthology was a wake-up call, an attempt to bring poetry and younger people to their senses. And we wanted to do so for precisely those ends I outlined at the beginning. For the present delight of younger people. For the future nurture of mature people. For the now of perception. For the then of recollection. We intended the same material to prove equally rewarding for the one growing up, the one "standing still" - and, if all went well, for the one "growing down".

So an enterprise that began at the heart of the established literary scene ended up with a slight whiff of the counter-cultural. At the back of our editors' minds there was always the example of WH Auden and John Garrett's 1930s anthology The Poet's Tongue . Auden and Garrett had shown the way to combine street rhymes and Shakespeare songs and had generally democratised the heritage without in the least dumbing it down; and it was also from them that we got the idea of printing the poems according to the alphabetical order of their titles. This, we hoped, would give the selection a feeling of lucky dip rather than prescribed text and would avoid the impression that the best readers always resist, the suspicion that the poems have, in Keats's words, "a palpable design" upon them.

Arbitrary riches rather than engineered instruction: that was what we were after. There were no lesson plans implicit in either the contents of The Rattle Bag or in their arrangement. What we hoped to do was to shake the rattle and awaken the sleeping inner poet in every reader. We proceeded in the faith that the aural and oral pleasures of poetry, the satisfactions of recognition and repetition, constitute an experience of rightness that can make the whole physical and psychic system feel more in tune with itself. We implicitly believed that a first exposure to poetry, the early schooling in it, should offer this kind of rightness, since it constitutes one of the primary justifications of the art. One of our inclusions, after all, was Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Woodlark", which begins:

Teevo cheevo cheeevio chee
0 where, where can that be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of song strain

and another was "anyone lived in a pretty how town" by EE Cummings, which ends:

Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain.

An experience of words and rhythms like these is arguably more than physical. It represents a metaphysical extension of capacity, an arrival at a point beyond the point that had been settled for previously. It can take us to a plane of regard where we look back on the usual, if only for a moment, and say to ourselves, "Been there, done that. What next? More, more!"

FIFTEEN years later Ted Hughes and I produced another anthology called The School Bag with a foreword that began: "We wanted this anthology to be different from The Rattle Bag, less of a carnival, more like a checklist. It would be a school-book in the usual sense - the poems, for example, are grouped in ways that invite different kinds of historical and thematic reading but it would also resemble 'a school of poetry' gathered on traditional bardic lines, a memory bank, a compendium of examples."

At the back of my mind this time there was something else written in the 1930s, in a book that was very different from the Auden and Garrett anthology. This was a passage from TS Eliot's lectures on "The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism", where he outlined three stages of development that a reader of poetry might be expected to go through. The first is the experience of enjoying poetry, feeling it intensely and getting to know many individual poems and kinds of poem. Then comes a second stage when the reader begins to classify and compare these experiences, to see one in light of another. At that point, says Eliot, "the element of enjoyment is enlarged into appreciation, which brings a more intellectual addition to the intensity of feeling. It is a second stage in our understanding of poetry, when we no longer merely select and reject, but organise." The third stage is that of re-organisation, when "a person already educated in poetry meets with something new in his own time, and finds a new pattern arranging itself in consequence".

The School Bag was meant as an intervention at Eliot's second stage of education in poetry, when the element of enjoyment is being enlarged into appreciation, when there is an intellectual addition, an organisation of the field. Consequently, the spirit in which Ted and I approached the compilation of this second volume was imbued with a new purpose. The poems were to be read less as Frostian "playthings in the playhouse" of the language and more as Yeatsian "monuments of [the soul's] magnificence". The first one in the book is very deliberately Yeats's "Long Legged Fly", which begins "That civilisation may not sink, / Its great battle lost . . ." while the last one is a chorus from Dryden's Secular Masque , which ends: "Tis well an old age is out / And time to begin a new". As the millennium approached, it was as if we wanted to do something definitive and affirmative, to express in our work as anthologists a determination expressed by Andrew Marvell in the poem "To his Coy Mistress": - a determination to "roll all our strength, and all / Our sweetness, up into one ball . . ."

This time we went head-on at the traditional corpus not only of English poetry, but of poetry in Irish, Welsh, Scots and Scots Gaelic; of poetry from America also, including poems of the blues and African-American experience; poetry that was indeed soul music, not just fragments shored against our ruin, but songs that might fortify the spirit against ruin. We covered more than a millennium and in the work we chose, the perspectives were generally longer, the pitch higher, the issues at stake more critical than they had been in The Rattle Bag . Because of constraints of space, however, we were able to choose only one poem each from all our poets, and yet in the end this constraint made the task of selection a pleasure and an education of sorts for us, the compilers. "Time and again," I wrote in the Foreword, "we were forced to decide whether personal affection for something not particularly 'major' could be allowed to outweigh the historical and canonical claims of a more obvious selection."

There was still an element of unpredictability about the choices but we attempted to suggest different kinds of order by the way the poems were juxtaposed. Christopher Reid, then our editor at Faber, made wonderful suggestions about the internal grouping of the material. Just to take a couple of examples from early on in the book, from a cluster of poems held together by settings and images of the sea: we began with a translation of a short sixth-century Irish poem about the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. In it, the new religion and the new age it ushers in appear in the figure of a mitre-wearing bishop, and this strange wedge-like head-gear reminds the poet of the sharp edge of an adze, so the poem in English goes by that title - "Adze-head":

Across the sea will come Adze-head,
crazed in the head,
his cloak with a hole for the head,
his stick bent in the head.

He will chant impiety
from a table in front of his house;
all his people will answer:
"Be it thus. Be it thus."

Immediately following this we printed Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach", a work from the other end of the age of religion, when all the poet can hear is the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the sea of faith that Adze-head and his brothers had once furled around earth's shores like a bright garment. And immediately following Arnold, we printed Elizabeth Bishop's great invocation to the sea and its waters, her poem called "At the Fishhouses", a poem in which one witnesses the rebirth of a religious impulse in a post-religious sensibility. "I have seen it over and over," Bishop writes, "the same sea, the same, / slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, / icily free above the stones . . . as if the water were a transmutation of fire / That feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame." And the poem ends:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing and flown.

Our knowledge is indeed historical and so, if this anthology were to be used in the classroom, a teacher would be needed as a guide to its contents and contexts; obviously, discussion of the poems could then lead into discussions of matters of historical, cultural, religious and political concern, but it is to be emphasised that the poems are there in the first place because they are poems, not because they are relevant to some urgent contemporary issue. We never intended to put the social and political cart before the artistic and imaginative horse. In fact, we might well have used as an epigraph for the book Joseph Brodsky's stirring affirmation that if art teaches us anything it is that the human condition is private.

If this seems an odd or perverse claim, I would gloss it by adducing the poem by Isaac Rosenberg that we also printed. This is the well known "Break of Day in the Trenches", in which the new and terrible human conditioning of the first world war comes home to us and keeps coming home because of the very private, very tremulous reality of "the parapet's poppy" stuck behind the soldier's ear. The poem ends like this:

Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping:
But mine in my ear is safe -
Just a little white with the dust.

Whatever stage of understanding you have attained - whether you are growing up, standing still or growing down - you are surely going to be touched by this poem, if only for a moment, and attuned by it to the tears of things. Yet attuned also to what another poet calls the dearest freshness that lives deep down in things. Just by being what it is, a flicker of original sweetness and shared sorrow in the face of the atrocious, the poem is a help.

The cadence of its last two lines - "But mine in my ear is safe - / Just a little white with the dust" - is unassertive, the metrical posture of the lines is a yielding one, and the dusty whiteness of the flower is suggestive of debilitation; and yet, as an expression of what we know intuitively and historically about our human condi tion, the lines are unshakably right, unwithering and unwitherable. Like many another poem written in the trenches of Flanders, this one exhibits the staying power that poets and poetry continue to furnish for the species, generation after generation. So while the grand primary principle of pleasure is one that will always justify and underwrite the teaching of poetry, poetry should also be taught in all its seriousness and extensiveness because it encompasses the desolations of reality, and remains an indispensable part of the equipment we need in the human survival kit.

Which brings me, in conclusion, to the kit bag - which might have been the title of The School Bag . In the end, we were swayed to the school bag because the kit bag had such a strong association with military action and suggested the solidarity of massed ranks rather than the sympathies of a well-schooled and many-minded individual. It conveyed an impression of positive certitude and imperial destiny rather than negative capability and common humanity. In our time, after all, a post-colonial time, in a world of multi-ethnic populations, the image of the marching man in khaki uniform, with his gun and his gear, is more of a menace than a promise.

Nevertheless, just to think of the kit bag is to be reminded of the thousands, perhaps millions of soldiers, who packed a volume of poetry in it as they went off to the front. It is to be reminded also of the soldiers of the second world war who would have packed their Rosenberg and their Owen. And of the soldiers of other wars since then who packed perhaps a poem written by their child or their spouse. And to be reminded of this, of the value attaching to intensely expressed human feeling, however frail, is to be reminded of what is perhaps the most important truth concerning the teaching of poetry.

What matters most in the end is the value that attaches to a few poems intimately experienced and well remembered. If at the end of each year spent in school, students have been marked by even one poem that is going to stay with them, that will be a considerable achievement. Such a poem can come to feel like a pre-natal possession, a guarantee of inwardness and a link to origin. It can become the eye of a verbal needle through which the growing person can pass again and again until it is known by heart, and becomes a path between heart and mind, a path by which the individual can enter, repeatedly, into the kingdom of rightness.

· An earlier version of this essay was given as a talk at The Prince of Wales Summer School, Norwich, in July 2003.

Seamus Heaney

The GuardianTramp

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