“Poetry is a vast subject, as old as history and older,” states Encyclopaedia Britannica along with some pessimistic conclusions about “the difficulty or impossibility of defining poetry”!
With Britannica’s thousands of specialist-academics thus challenged by poetry I was more than happy to visit the Seamus Heaney HomePlace centre armed with some good advice from the man himself!
“Poetry is an ad hoc reality” Heaney said in an interview in 2009 “you can log-on, log-off; you don’t need to know very much, just enter where you like, take what you want and go.”
Literary buffs and Heaney-devotees who visit HomePlace won’t log-off and leave in a month of sonnets. Not knowing much about poetry I felt less durable!
Two floor-to-ceiling, black-and-white photos of the adult and schoolboy reign over the building’s airy entrance concourse, together with the words from one of his most celebrated poems - Digging - which ends:
“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.”
I knew from Trip Advisor that Heaney’s pen was upstairs and I thought it was a critical absence in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum when I was there recently and Vincent’s paintbrushes were nowhere to be seen!
The wood, stone and glass HomePlace building, on the site of a former RUC barracks, is shaped on one elevation like a traditional homestead, though camouflaged behind sharp modern lines and textures hinting of Scandinavian inspiration.
The mostly-white interiors, with wide-windowed aspects over Bellaghy and the surrounding countryside, fulfil English Romantic poet John Keats’ literary assessment - “Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject.”
HomePlace focuses on Heaney’s life, literature and inspirations since he was born the eldest of nine at Mossbawn on April 13, 1939. In ‘Out of the Bag’ in 2001 he wrote about the doctor’s medicine and instrument case, present at every birth!
Mossbawn is near Castledawson, three miles from Bellaghy, where the family relocated in 1953.
HomePlace manager Brian McCormick, Heaney’s nephew, greeted me with “Come inside and leave everything out there behind!”
His words were profound and prophetic. For the next three hours - a hopelessly inadequate timetable - I forgot myself and my problems because “everything out there” was inside HomePlace, in Heaney’s poems!
I’d been privileged to spend a memorable day with Seamus in and around Dublin in 1979, on an assignment awash with his literary genius, his immensely entertaining conversation, and a few pints of the black stuff!
He was almost as alive for me in HomePlace as he was back then, but the Bellaghy building, with its glorious intensity of information, is a whole life rather than an afternoon’s glimpse.
The centre is billed as portraying Heaney’s ‘life, literature and inspiration’, which are often closely intertwined.
The first-floor section focusing on inspiration uses four broad themes - memories, places, learning and conflicts, and the main ground-floor exhibition is about people and place.
Kitted out with headphones and a little hand-held player - endearingly called an ‘audio wand’ - I listen to Seamus reading his poems while I peruse the exhibition panels, displays and artefacts.
It’s multi-layered progression that takes me into, across, and beyond his poems, from the landscape he knew that’s all around HomePlace via the illustrations, narratives, artefacts and photos, to the printed poems and most magical of all, Heaney’s voice in the ear.
“His poetry is full of the people and places he encountered here as a child” says an explanatory screen.
“I came from scraggy farm and moss, old patchworks that the pitch and toss
Of history have left dishevelled” says the poet in my ear, reciting from A Peacock’s feather.
“Many of his poems take a simple childhood experience, vividly remembered,” says the print on the panel “to express more complex ideas. They are about love and family. Politics and identity. Growing up and growing old. They have given people all over the world insight into their lives and relationships.”
I look at an old anvil while Seamus reads his globally-adored local blacksmith poem - 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.”
Heaney’s remarkable recall, with his unique metaphorical resonances, makes the forge much more than a childhood fascination - it’s the whole process of becoming and being a poet!
“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.”
Almost every panel, photograph and artefact comes with a relevant poem, spoken by the poet himself.
Family, friends, school-chums, past events and local landmarks adorn the walls along with Heaney’s masterful writings - a double helping of history!
There’s his old leather schoolbag, not a child’s bag, but his Uncle Peter’s briefcase because the Heaneys couldn’t afford a schoolbag for wee Seamus when he went to school in May 1944.
His school-desk is in Homeplace “with the traditional heavy plank top, a solid slightly sloped surface with inkwells along the top…”
There’s a football.
“What I remember is the way we kept going and even seeing the ball after it had got dark.”
There’s an old hand-cranked water pump.
“As you came with me in silence,
To the pump in the long grass.”
His Dublin attic study is recreated in HomePlace, the desk spread intriguingly with some original, pen-corrected, typed poems and with its famous skylight in the ceiling.
Seamus didn’t want to the skylight to be added:
“But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.”
His library is recreated, adorned with some of his favourite books, and the family and children’s area invites visitors of all ages to ‘release your inner artist’ or to ‘vote for your favourite poem’.
Mid-term Break is this month’s popular choice, a harrowing poem about the death of Heaney’s younger brother Christopher who was killed by a car at the age of four.
“Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.”
-Full information at www.seamusheaneyhome.com