Van Morrison, Seamus Heaney, Among The Regions

August 31, 2013

1982 and Van Morrison is onstage in Belfast, chasing his rapture across ‘Summertime In England’. A roll call of the poets, the mystics, the romantics and the lightning catchers. More than eight minutes, and not a bit of it surplus. He’s calling out to Coleridge and Wordsworth, Blake, Whitman and Beckett. On saxophone there’s Pee Wee Ellis, sometime James Brown associate and he’s matching the singer’s fever, blowing with abandon. As is his wont, Van revises his  lyrics from the recorded version, sending more names into the ether.

“Mister Heaney,

I read your book,


Among the regions”.

And then he’s off again, citing RS Thomas and DH Lawrence as the song makes a squalling case for feeling and sensation: it ain’t why, it just is.

You might have supposed that Van and Seamus Heaney were connected. The most prolific writers on the island. The pair of them deep into their sense of place, their local resonances, the names and the townlands, the squelch and the smell of it. Like Kavanagh before them they could find the epic in the commonplace, the small-town Homers. While the poet would find amazement in a water diviner, Van channeled his magic through the transistor radio and the wavelength.

Yet there’s little evidence of Morrison and Heaney sharing much. In 2006, Van spoke to Paul Sexton at The Independent.

“There’s poets who do that, and there’s the other kind of poetry they call the romantics, which comes from a different place of being in touch with nature, so that’s kind of where I’m coming from. If there’s any sort of lineage in this, it’s people like that. Or in Ireland – Patrick Kavanagh, or Joseph Campbell, these kind of lyricists.

“It’s more like an instinctual thing; that’s where the song’s from, rather than sitting down and thinking more intellectually, like Seamus Heaney. He’s a very intellectual poet. I’m coming from the other place.”

So no apparent affinity, then. If you’re looking for Irish musicians relating to Heaney, you might be better looking to Neil Hannon, who responded wryly with ‘Death Of A Supernaturalist’. Or Gary Lightbody, whose Myspace signature once used the closing lines of ‘Digging’.

“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.”

Which is coincidentally where this blog sourced its name. On hearing of Heaney’s passing, Lightbody wrote on his tumblr site about his English teacher, Mark McKee and his introduction to the aforementioned poem.

“Seamus Heaney made me want to be a writer. I wrote poetry every day and was published at 15, many times. All of it terrible and I have to read it now, if I ever do, from behind splayed fingers but it started me on the path that would take me to here.”

He continues:

“There are people, as my friend Gabrielle is fond of saying that are part of an ‘invisible tribe’. Artists and writers that touch people on a level that beds deeper into our souls and hearts… I would make Heaney chieftain of that ‘invisible tribe’.”

They may not have been a love-in with Van and Seamus, but I like to think that Heaney was shadowing the singer with his 1991 work ‘Squarings’, section xxxi. Before this, there was only one mind-blowing work about a tunnel of trees: Morrison’s ‘Cyprus Avenue’. But Seamus caught his own epiphany in North Antrim and that remarkable parade of weather-lashed Scotch firs:

“You drive into a meaning made of trees.
Or not exactly trees. It is a sense
Of running through and under without let,

Of glimpse and dapple. A life all trace and skim
The car has vanished out of. A fanned nape
Sensitive to the millionth of a flicker.

Rave on Mister Heaney. May you run through and under without let.


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