As I write, it is the first day of October. One year ago exactly it was National Poetry Day, celebrating the theme of Vision. That afternoon, I took a photograph of my study desk. It was a crisp, sunlit, early Autumn day, very much like this one. In the photograph, there is the usual paraphernalia of teaching online: the screen of a small laptop; books; lined paper; and a calendar. Just out of shot, there must have been the quintessential cup of coffee.
But beyond all this, standing in the sun, there is my study window. It is composed of a tall wooden frame, painted in buttermilk white. The frame holds together sixteen rectangular panes of glass, and the wall in which it is set is south facing. The aperture reaches from the low tongue-and- groove ceiling almost to the natural pine floor, its clean outline contrasting with the shades of honey and gold of the unpainted wood underfoot. On sunlit days, especially at this time of year, I enjoy being close to this window, for I can feel the warmth of the sun and I appreciate the uplift of the light.
Each window frames a distinct composition. And each portrait is seasonal. Picture looking out from my study in spring: there is the enthusiasm of fresh green foliage as it reaches up to meet the sky. In summer, the rhododendron blossoms make their own stylish arrival in mauve. And sometimes, in winter, slender fingers of snow lounge in delicate balance along the branches of a low hedge.
This afternoon’s poetry class did not take place beside the window in my study. Instead, the students gathered in a room overlooking the lawns and tall trees of a college campus. The endurance of the written word was a reassuring constant as we turned again to poetry.
We began to explore together the theme of identity in the writing of Seamus Heaney. Born in 1939 in a rural townland not far from my home, Heaney’s childhood was set in a context of war. As a young adult he knew the upheaval of violent conflict. He grew up in the heart of a farming family, and wrote from the perspectives of a son, a nephew, a husband, father and grandfather. His marriage with Marie Heaney was strong and enduring.
Language has the power to cross boundaries. Heaney sounded its depths in his writing, and in doing so, he offered windows that opened up views into his life and the experience of his humanity. I find so much in the word pictures Heaney painted that is both familiar and beloved. There are certain things that feel very close to home. For example, in this part of the world, many of us have experienced some kind of expedition to gather blackberries from the hedgerows in Autumn. But I can see things that are less familiar, and some that are strange. In this sense, Heaney’s poetry is educative: it leads the reader out from the limits of their own world into the lived experience of another.
Heaney excelled at school. As well as pursuing a distinguished career as a Nobel Prize winning writer and translator, he became a teacher, and a teacher educator. Today my student teachers and I found inspiration and common opened ground in reading ‘The Play Way’. This early poem evokes the world of an innovative classroom teacher seeking to inspire, but underneath the surface there are tensions. We imagined together the young Heaney in a Belfast classroom, in the pursuit of creativity and growth just as the tumultuous waves of The Troubles were poised to break destructively over our land. We talked too of the experience of contemporary teachers, passionate about their disciplines, but acutely aware of the complexity of young people’s lives, and of the deeply rooted pastoral issues emerging in our society with all its privileges and problems.
We were impacted also by reading ‘A Kite for Michael and Christopher’. In this poem the playful tradition of making and flying kites, passed down from generation to generation, affords the giving of life-gifts from parent to child, but keeps us mindful of the fragile cord of our mortality, and the strains of human grief. It was poignant to remember the Heaney family’s loss in the very recent death of Hugh, Seamus’s brother. Hugh Heaney is pictured in this photograph, taken in November 2015 at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, with the First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness.
The occasion was the unveiling of two portraits by my friend, artist and sculptor Ross Wilson: one of Seamus Heaney, and one of C. S. Lewis. I am grateful to Ross for kindly allowing me to share this photograph. He reminded me too, that as far as windows go, there are two perspectives. Sometimes we look out through the glass into all that lies beyond, and at other times we look inwards from an outside space to all that lies within. In a sense, windows are thin places where two worlds meet.
Earlier in the week I listened to a radio programme in the car while driving home from campus. The Hidden History of The Window was just the kind of eclectic broadcast that tends to draw me in, offering a rich variety of perspectives, including, in this case, those of historians and architects and poets. It featured a conversation with English Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, who talked about a sequence of poems he had written during lockdown, inspired by his viewing of the sky through a Velux window. Armitage describes this writing space as ‘the anglepoise of heaven and desk’. Unlike a window built into a wall, the Velux window was an opening in the roof that not only gave light, but drew the gaze skyward, and therefore presented the poet with fewer earthly distractions.
This conversation took me back to Heaney’s poem ‘The Skylight’, which tells the domestic story of a husband reluctantly agreeing to the creation of a window in the roof, a home improvement long advocated by his wife. In the final stanza, Heaney brings to our attention the Gospel story of the paralysed man lowered by friends through the roof of a house to be forgiven and healed by Jesus. He draws a parallel between the two situations, evoking the unexpected excitement and sense of possibility brought about by the entrance of light: ‘But when the slates came off, extravagant Sky / entered and held surprise wide open’.
Writing in Christianity and Literature of Heaney’s poetic treatment of the Biblical accounts of this story, Alison Jack concludes that ‘Perhaps its enduring legacy in his work is the image it leaves behind itself, rather than the moment of miraculous action. The unroofed roof lies open to the sky, its brokenness enabling the surprising and mysterious to enter the darkness of the enclosed room’.
Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006, and he knew what it was to be ill. We talked about this aspect of his identity too. In his poem ‘Miracle’, written some years after ‘The Skylight’, he returned again to the Gospel story, itself a kind of window through which to consider the deeply human issues of illness, caring and healing.
In our class today we kept the windows open. There was fresh air to breathe, and the room was filled with the kind of light particular to early Autumn. Seamus Heaney’s poems offered themselves as windows, opening up to us his own life, and something of the brokenness and wonder of our shared humanity. His reading of Scripture, inscribed in his writing, extended our vision. It bequeathed to us an enduring impression of human suffering and kindness, and there in the midst, the healing and forgiveness of Christ. Today, poetry opened the roof of our minds. It lifted our eyes upwards, and gifted us with light.