Nov 072011

Had I not been awake I would have missed it’.

Heaney describes the moment when Nature’s external show of energy kick-started his own internal engine. The poem recalls the aftermath of serious illness (the poet had suffered a mild stroke in 2006 in a Donegal guesthouse) also reflecting Heaney’s in-built uncertainty as to where his next poetic spark might come from. Sleep inducing treatment has perhaps made moments of consciousness more fleeting; this ‘reawakening’ generates a new-found impetus that replaces a mind-set of physical and mental frailty, even fear. Heaney recalls a moment pivotal to his recovery.

‘Had I not been awake I would have missed it’. He heard the sounds and felt the buffeting of Nature’s strength, sufficient for his sense-memory to picture the scene: a wind that rose and whirled … leaves  that are quick, a dual suggestion of uncontrolled staccato and aliveness.  Sufficient to stir Heaney from his sick-bed and challenge his previous incapacity, the patter of the leaves restores a life-force: the whole of me a-patter/ Alive and ticking like an electric fence. The first line, repeated, confirms both relief and exultation.

Heaney ponders the vital yet transitory moment that came on both unexpectedly and dangerously, whether by inducing an immediate health-threat caused by him leaping around or the stress-threat of future poet-work. Heaney projects Nature’s show of strength as nothing less than a powerful instinct aimed at a kindred spirit: Returning like an animal to the house bearing a special message of instrumental brass proportion: a courier blast.

The squall died awaylapsed ordinary, although, thankfully, not without a promise to recur: not ever/ After. And certainly not yet terminal: not now. To prove the point, here is a poem crafted by a poet still alive and kicking! The final couplet implies Heaney’s view on mortality via its negative take on the final lines of the Lord’s Prayer with its implicit promise of everlasting life.

    • whilst resigned to the ephemerality of life, Heaney delights in moments he is determined still to savour;
    • he belies any suggestions that awareness of the world around decreases with the onset of age or incapacity;
    • the opening poem, “Had I not been awake”, replays the stroke in allegory, setting a new unfamiliar tenor of uncertainty and precariousness. Nick Laird, The Telegraph, Sept 2010;
    • the allegory suggestion is engaging. Heaney is successful in weaving different layers into the text: only those suffering a stroke could begin to describe the symptoms of the oncoming condition, its immediate effect on blood supply to the brain and limbs (effectively Heaney’s roof and on the rest of his bodily ‘house’), what the inner ear registers, its passing and the danger to his well-being that it leaves behind.
    • 12 lines; 4 tercets; mostly10 feet lines with a variety of stresses. 6 lines describe an event; 6 lines reflect on its significance leading to a deeper conclusion; one long sentence split by a colon; then 2 short ones ;
    • no formal rhyme-scheme;
    • the title line is repeated; other repetition: patter/ a-patter;
    • alliteration, common in this and subsequent poems: consonants differ according to where in the mouth they are formed: between the lips [p] [b] ; behind the teeth [t] [d]; velar or alveolar [[g] [k]. Some are voiced [b], some are voiceless [p]. Some ex-‘plode’ in a single sound, others can be continuous, floating on air being exhaled [s] [w], some involve friction [f], others are frictionless [w]. The poem can benefit from all of these ‘musical’ alternatives and Heaney knows it!  He loads his composition with alliterated consonants judged best suited to mood and melody;
    • alliteration mimics the sound of the squall: awake/ would/ wind/ whirled; the frequency of [t] mimics  time’s metronome: pattered/ a-patter/ tick;
    • use of synonym to strengthen  a theme: quick/ alive
    • the final word of each of the 3 concluding lines sets out a time reference (past/ infinity/ present): then…ever…now