Seamus Heaney on Dictionaries

In the summer of 2012 Seamus Heaney wrote to me on some questions I had sent him about dictionaries and words and etymologies. Bits of what he had to say made it into a couple of talks I did around that time, but I recently rediscovered the original text, and thought it should see the light of day. So here’s a very lightly edited rendition of our exchange:

D-AW: An anecdote in ‘Feeling into Words’ describes having grammatical and lexical facts recited to you in the form of rhymes as a child. Do you have any early memories of consulting dictionaries?

SH: I cannot remember the words of my mother’s rhyme, but it was a chant that somehow incorporated the links to be found between Latin and English vocabularies. The first dictionary I remember was a red-backed old Chambers in the Mossbawn house. I must have been eleven or twelve when I used it – if I used it.  The physical book and the authority that was lodged in and around it are what stay with me most.

What dictionaries have you owned, which have been important to you, and has it been a part of your compositional practice to consult them? How do you use them?

As a student and young teacher, I had one of the standard issue single volume dictionaries available at the time.  In my mid-twenties, however, I bought the third edition, two volume Shorter OED – which I still keep to hand, although for years I’ve also had the thirteen volumes and supplements of the full dictionary (the [text missing; likely OED1+SUP2] edition).  I don’t have any dictionary on line – not in order to resist the IT developments, rather a matter of sheer laziness and ineptitude.  Nor do I use dictionaries ‘as part of my compositional practice’ – although I have been long aware of the Irish language as an underlay in Irish placenames. And undoubtedly my undergraduate work involving the history of the English language – and the language of Ulster as planted there by the English and the Scots – contributed to a sense of the layering of the tongue.  Some poets are more ardently and obsessively dictionary prone, but my own use of them is mostly for traditional reasons – checking the meaning of words I half know (in order to make sure) and ones I don’t know (in order to find out).

‘The Redress of Poetry’ is structured somewhat according to OED’s definitions of ‘redress’. Can you comment further on what led you to adopt (sections of) a lexical taxonomy as a basis for rhetorical organization? Is one aware of the lexicographer when one begins to think along such lines, or is the impression more like shading in the contours of a partially sketched bit of the language?

The adoption of a lexical taxonomy for rhetorical organization has been something of a habit. A few years ago in my tribute at the funeral of the late Benedict Kiely – novelist, broadcaster – I remember playing with the man himself as ‘benedictus’, playing with his reputation as a raconteur as ‘bene dixit’, of his love of a thing well said as ‘bene dictum’.

Also recently, in the foreword to a book of Anglo-Saxon translations entitled The Word Exchange (Norton) I ended up suggesting that ‘render’ might be a better word for what poets do when they ‘translate’:

Among the primary meanings for ‘render’, for example, the third edition of my Shorter Oxford Dictionary gives the following: to repeat (something learned); to say over; to give in return, give back, restore; to submit to, or lay before, another for consideration or approval; to obtain or extract by melting.

In cases like these, and in the case of ‘redress’, I don’t begin with the idea of plundering the word for meanings; it’s rather a discovery, a saving grace, something that clinches or copes. (I’m inclined to look up ‘copes’ here…It came to mind just now, no doubt via the alliteration, but I’m curious about the lexical meaning.  I’ve a hunch it’s worth looking up.

Is a word’s history (comprising its etymology, its past uses, and its development) important to you per se? If so, what is valuable about it? Does it take on or express a different kind of value in a poem? ‘But bog, | meaning soft’, e.g., appears to favour historical meaning over lexical meaning (what is the meaning of ‘meaning’ here?) in order to take the strain against some other body of association. (In that poem perhaps it’s ambiguous whether the current English word or the Irish etymon is being contemplated. But there seems to be a related trope at work in ‘Heather breathes on soft bog-pillows’).

In some cases a word is chosen because it carries a particular etymological or historical charge – ‘telluric’, for example, in ‘Anything Can Happen’ (District and Circle) and ‘transported’ – meaning borne up into a fantasy and borne off to a camp, both meanings at work in the last line of ‘A Sofa in the Forties’ (The Spirit Level and Opened Ground).  But no, I hadn’t noticed or intended a play with ‘soft bog-pillows’.

The collection where language and its historical/political charge come into focus is Wintering Out.  ‘Fodder’ pronounced ‘fother’ where I grew up, rhyming with mother, half-rhyming with father; ‘Anahorish’ being similarly caressed in the poem of that title, ‘Ana’ as the gradient, ‘horish’ the ‘vowel meadow’.  And ‘Broagh’ with its ‘rigs’ and ‘docken’, Scots and English traces in the local speech, their otherness from the Irish ‘bruach’ which is Broagh which is ‘riverbank’.  The phonetic element was the primary relish in such writing but the reach was into history and relevant to politics in the Ulster of the late sixties, early seventies.

Your earlier collections include many more poems that take as topics language, language history, and the ‘aura’s of individual words than your later work. Do you experience your relation to the material of language, its origins and history, differently now than before, or is some other change at work? Do etymologies resonate differently in you now?

I suppose the need that the ‘etymological’/’word’ poems arose from, which was to a large extent political, has been assuaged. Since Field Work (1979) the language, as I have often said, was wanting to be more like clear glass than stained glass – although I have just noticed a poem called ‘Derry Derry Down’ in Human Chain that ends with four of my dialect words in the emotional scales with their standard English equivalents.  And in the same collection the ending of ‘Slack’ uses ‘catharsis’ as much for its therapeutic effect as its phonetic match.   But it’s true that ‘words alone’ are less the subject at this stage.

Among the words that you are cited for in the current OED are: ‘adoze’, ‘aftergrass’, ‘artfulness’, ‘chemotherapy’, ‘classicize’, ‘coolth’, ‘easter, (v.)’, ‘hell’, ‘Irishry’, ‘middle ground’, ‘moisting’, ‘murex’, ‘pash’, ‘plough’, ‘plunder’, ‘potato’, ‘ramrod’, ‘rattle-bag’, ‘reword’, ‘Scots-Irish’, ‘slap’, ‘sogged’, ‘wheep’, and ‘womb’. Did you know of these citations? Are any of them, either individually or in combination, suggestive to you in any way? Is it something for a poet (or for you, as a poet) to be cited in this way?

I did not know of those citations and I can see why words like ‘adoze’, ‘aftergrass’, ‘coolth’, ‘easter, (v.)’, ‘moisting’, ‘murex’, ‘pash’, ‘rattle-bag’, ‘sogged’ and ‘wheep’ might warrant inclusion, since they are dialect usages or extensions of a word’s function – as in ‘easter’ as verb (which happens to occur in Hopkins). But ‘chemotherapy’, ‘hell’, ‘Irishry’ (utterly Yeats’s), ‘middle ground’, ‘plough’ and so on – ‘potato’, for God’s sake! – they’re common currency. It’s  certainly a reward to have words like the first ones above cited in one’s name: I remember an anecdote about an author – I think Thomas Hardy – looking up to check a word only to find that it occurred in his own work.   Or perhaps I should say he found that it occurred only in his own work.


[D-AW – Though I can’t say I knew him, I miss Seamus Heaney terribly. He died suddenly, a little more than a year after doing me the generosity of replying to these questions. His death was a shock, as I had become not just grateful, but also comfortable and comforted in a world where Heaney was writing poems. As others said at the time, Heaney’s poetry taught us many things, among them ways to grieve for lost things and lost ones with emotion, dignity, and respect. I dwelt on those examples when my father died, two years after. Other words of his I’ve thought of near daily for twenty years or so; among them these, whenever I cut across an unexpected breeze: “Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.” They bring me to.]

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