a gentle reflection as the year begins, nudged on by Leonard's instinct to redeem our days, inspired by Heaney's beautiful introduction to Clearances -

Interviewer: ‘Do you generally begin a song with a lyrical idea?’

Leonard Cohen: ‘It begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect.     To redeem the day…’


Seamus Heaney.JPG

From Clearances
by Seamus Heaney

She taught me what her uncle once taught her:
How easily the biggest coal block split
If you got the grain and hammer angled right.

The sound of that relaxed alluring blow,
Its co-opted and obliterated echo,
Taught me to hit, taught me to loosen,

Taught me between the hammer and the block
To face the music. Teach me now to listen,
To strike it rich behind the linear black.


This is one of my all-time favourite verses from Seamus Heaney. It marks the beginning of his incredibly beautiful long poem Clearances, written in memory of his mother.

I’ve always found this opening section especially powerful – partly because in its abstraction, it speaks to so many things worth treasuring: lineage, gratitude, need, learning. There’s a lovely blend of universality and sharp detail that amplifies its power.

Heaney’s lines are with me today in relation to all of our need for guidance, for teachings, for voices of wisdom – our enduring longing to be taught, really taught, things that matter. Things that can help when we need them. Things our elders knew and know, learnt from their elders, and want to pass to us. To be taught slowly, intimately, like the young apprentices we are, in a graceful, silent way that matches our need. Whether those elders whose knowledge we yearn for and rely on are familial or not, each of our lives depends upon these wisdoms handed down, human to human.

Most of us need deep help from others, not just to learn the practical skills of living, but spiritually too - to take us beyond our own neurotic minds and open us up to something deeper and more beautiful. So, let’s fall into Heaney’s words again, on our need for elders, the beauty of teachers and teachings, and the invitation to absorb learning that matters:

She taught me what her uncle once taught her
How easily the biggest coal block split
If you got the grain and hammer angled right.

Heaney begins with lineage itself, with transmission, and, in this case, familial belonging. Also - endearingly for me - he’s describing physical labour passing without gender through a family - from man to woman and now to boy.

In these opening lines, I love most of all the promise of ‘easily’. That everything, potentially, even big hard dark things, can be transformed by a skilful touch. There is a magic to it - to the child seeing that what looks unbreakable and hard can be broken; to the adult that what looks unbearable can be borne.


The sound of that relaxed alluring blow
It’s co-opted and obliterated echo

Linguistically, for me, this is the most beautiful line in the piece - ‘the sound of that relaxed alluring blow’. Wow - the compelling, easy grace, the (almost) silent whish through the air, the clean true landing of the loud sharp blow and its echoing. The child seeing this over and over, learning. Sensually absorbing what his mother knows. Learning, always learning:


Taught me to hit, taught me to loosen
Taught me between the hammer and the block
To face the music…

And now the poem is opening. Opening to the point of splitting through to a core, opening to the work and the lives we find ourselves within. There, we alone will face the music of our actions, our skill, or lack of skill, our care, as it reveals itself within our chosen tasks. A life-long thing, to learn to face that music. This is the wider application of it all: the new places we bring the skills of our ancestors, the learnings we absorbed young, the specific fields we devote ourselves to and apply them in.

…Teach me now to listen,
To strike it rich behind the linear black.

And always, all of us, striving in our own ways, ‘to strike it rich’ – wherever our 'black' is, and whatever ‘rich’ means to us. We each seek to mine a deep seam, to bring forth something great or beautiful from our engagement with the world around us.

May we find the teachers and be the teachers that help unfold such richness. May we continue to devote ourselves to skills that matter. And may we slowly grow, intimate and patient in our learning...

Here’s the full poem by the way - some very special other verses too... https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57042/clearances