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Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Nobel Prize for Farrier Poetry: Looking Through Seamus Heaney's "Door into the Dark"



One of the world's greatest poets died on Friday. Ireland's Seamus Heaney was one of those people who bridged the past and the present with verse so deft you were never sure where time fit into the story or if time matters anymore. He grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1940s and went out into the world through his words, winning the Nobel Prize for poetry as he wandered.


I've been known to read his poem "The Forge" at the funerals of farriers, especially my friends who valued the past and almost, sometimes unconsciously, longed for it to sweep over them and carry them back to a horse-drawn age where their skills and passions meant more than a pickup truck bombarded by rock 'n roll in a barn aisle of pampered ponies and tattoo'd teens in tube tops.

But today I found out that I had it all wrong. I never even understood the poem. Or, maybe there is more than one way to read it.



The Forge

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music. 
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

--Seamus Heaney, 1969           


You see, I always thought that this poem was a description of Barney Devlin's shop at Hillhead near Bellaghy, County Derry in Northern Ireland. You can smell it. You can hear it and feel it. And I thought you could see it.

But that's not it at all. Yesterday I read an interview with the subject of the poem, Barney Devlin. It turns out that Seamus Heaney, the young lad, walked by the forge every day and never went inside. All he could see was darkness, save the occasional shower of sparks. But he could hear the wheeze of the bellows, the hiss of the hot shoe in the cooling water.

When he says that the anvil must be in the center, I thought that it meant that it was required to be there, but in reality, he was imagining where it was in the forge by the sound.

All he knew of Barney Devlin was the man who leaned in the doorway and Heaney imagined that he sneered at the car traffic, remembering the street filled with horses.

I figured that there was a metaphor in there, too, and that the "door into the dark" referred to something that triggers depression or addiction or some form of self-abuse. But the careful inventorying of the images and sounds of the forge...what did they represent? I now just think that he was painting a sound cloud on the page, telling us all the things he heard (or thought he heard), and the few things that he saw (or thought he saw).

Barney Devlin rings the anvil, Hillhead forge
Barney Devlin is 20 years older than Seamus Heaney. He inspired two of the Nobel Laureate's most loved poems, "The Forge" and "Midnight Anvil". Barney rang out the 20th century while ringing in the 21st on his anvil while his son listened on the phone from western Canada to hear it. Seamus Heaney thought that all the smiths of all the millennia were listening and paid tribute to them. Shouldn't there be a midnight anvil ringing out over Ireland (and the world) for Seamus Heaney?

Heaney wrote the poem decades later, when he understood what he heard: that the wheezing sound was the bellows, the hiss was a hot shoe in water. Back in his youth, all he knew of the forge was that door into the dark. And that was enough to win the Nobel Prize in 1995 and make Seamus Heaney the world's best-known poet of contemporary times. He even named one of his books, "Door Into the Dark".

Barney Devlin outlived the poet who immortalized him. Devlin, now 95, has an autographed copy of the photo of himself with the poet on the wall of his home. It is inscribed by Heaney, "Hammer on Barney".

Heaney immortalized Barney Devlin once again, in a poetic tribute to the last days of the last millennium, December 31, 1999. In this poem, "The Midnight Anvil", Barney goes to the forge and strikes the anvil 12 times. Why 12? I wonder. But the farrier's son is listening to the anvil, holding his cellphone "as high as a horse's ear" half a world away in Edmonton, Alberta. Heaney calls the ring of that midnight anvil "Such noise/on nights heard never".

Look it up.




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