‘Tis the season of the end-of-semester deadline, of the darker morning, and the even darker evening. For some of us at least, it’s a time of dwindling energies during which the idea of hibernation holds a distinctive allure.
Imagine, then, the delicious sensation of surprise that was mine when, as I made my way late on a November afternoon out of the electric light of the classroom into the hushed college corridor beyond, it dawned on me that I was smiling. It was a quietly happy kind of smile that made its lovely presence felt.
We had spent the final class of the day reading the poetry of John Hewitt who had studied at our college between 1927 and 1929, although there are few signs of this on campus. I had to be up front with the students: although I appreciate Hewitt’s regionalism, I couldn’t say intuitively that he was my favourite poet.
We started with ‘Frost’. For effect I suppose, before we read the poem, and just before the ice-blue sky deepened into indigo and from there to charcoal, we opened the louvred blinds and looked out. Before our eyes, in all the elemental glory of its naked silver limbs, stood a tree. The light and the revealed sight were rinsing. We were suddenly more awake. Perhaps Hewitt had seen it too, on a similar November day, decades before we did. In our imaginations at least, we shared the moment with him: “With frost again the thought is clear and wise / that rain made dismal with a mist’s despair…Light leaps along the lashes of the eyes;/ a tree is truer for its being bare.”
We listening then to recorded readings of Hewitt’s work by distinguished poets like Michael Longley, Sinead Morrissey and Frank Ormsby; to mark the 25th anniversary of the John Hewitt International Summer School, they had each chosen their favourite Hewitt poem.
You can listen to Seamus Heaney reading Hewitt’s ‘The Watchers’ here. Heaney described this poem’s closing lines as uncharacteristically uncertain for Hewitt, and explained that that is exactly why he liked it. The lines give us a glimpse of a moment that for Hewitt ‘suddenly began to mean / more than a badger, and a row of eyes / a stony brook, a leafy ditch between’.
It gives a glimpse of an instant in time charged by an apprehension of something more. We wondered aloud. What might mean ‘more than a badger’? This reminded me of English poet Malcolm Guite contending in his book Mariner that ‘in the language of poetry we meet something that is both itself and a mediator of that which is beyond itself’. It reminded me too of Heaney’s crediting of poetry, in his Nobel Lecture, ‘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, … for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase’.
The shared awareness of something more, late on a darkening Thursday afternoon in November, in poetry, had bestowed a gift: of gentle, reassuring, un-regarded delight.