Apr. 13, 2003

The Barn

by Seamus Heaney

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Poem: "The Barn," by Seamus Heaney from Opened Ground (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux).

The Barn

Threshed corn lay piled like grit of ivory
Or solid as cement in two-lugged sacks.
The musky dark hoarded an armoury
Of farmyard implements, harness, plough-socks.

The floor was mouse-grey, smooth, chilly concrete.
There were no windows, just two narrow shafts
Of gilded motes, crossing, from air-holes slit
High in each gable. The one door meant no draughts

All summer when the zinc burned like an oven.
A scythe's edge, a clean spade, a pitchfork's prongs:
Slowly bright objects formed when you went in.
Then you felt cobwebs clogging up your lungs

And scuttled fast into the sunlit yard-
And into nights when bats were on the wing
Over the rafters of sleep, where bright eyes stared
From piles of grain in corners, fierce, unblinking.

The dark gulfed like a roof-space. I was chaff
To be pecked up when birds shot through the air-slits.
I lay face-down to shun the fear above.
The two-lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats.


Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who invented the game Scrabble. Alfred M. Butts was born in Poughkeepsie, New York (1899).

It's the birthday of novelist John Braine, born in Yorkshire, England (1922). He was one of the British novelists, along with Kingsley Amis and others, referred to as the "Angry Young Men." He said, "Being a writer in a library is rather like being a eunuch in a harem." He wrote Room at the Top (1957).

It's the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, born on his father's plantation at Albermarle County, on the western fringes of the Virginia settlement (1743). He wrote the Declaration of Independence at age 33, which includes the famous lines, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It's the birthday of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, born on a farm in Derry, Northern Ireland (1939). He is the oldest of nine siblings. His father was a cattle dealer, a quiet man, and is a major figure in Heaney's poetry. Heaney once said, "[My father] was simply in terror of misrepresenting things by speaking of them. In a sense I think he believed…that to speak a thing out, to confess it, to name it, in some way disabled it."

It's the birthday of writer Eudora Welty, born in Jackson, Mississippi (1909). It was Welty's mother that introduced her to books. She was a schoolteacher and, according to Welty, she "sank as a hedonist into novels. She read Dickens in the spirit in which she would have eloped with him." Welty wrote, "…I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them…" She moved away from Mississippi to attend the Columbia University School of Business. She loved New York City, but when her father grew sick and died from leukemia, she returned home to help her mother, and stayed in Mississippi for the rest of her life. She lived almost her entire life in the family home in Jackson. She wrote her fiction by a window in her house, where tunes from a nearby music school mingled with sound of her typewriter. While her early stories had come easily for her, she found that new stories were more and more difficult to write. She wrote and rewrote, revising her stories by cutting them apart at the dining-room table and reassembling them with straight pins. She never married. She said that marriage "never came up." Welty won a Pulitzer prize for her novel The Optimist's Daughter (1972) but most critics consider her masterpiece to be The Golden Apples (1949), a book of stories about an invented, magical Mississippi community called Morgana. Among others, she also wrote A Curtain of Green (1941), The Robber Bridegroom (1946), and Delta Wedding (1946). She said, "I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."

It's the birthday of author, poet, and playwright Samuel Beckett, born in Dublin, Ireland (1906). He once said, "What do I know of man's destiny? I could tell you more about radishes."

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