Seeing Things and then “Seeing Things”

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“Fish” by jpbohannon, 2017

One of Seamus Heaney’s later collections of poetry was entitled Seeing Things, and indeed the Irish poet was a master of detailed observation.  His career was built on seeing and noticing things.

Seeing Things

Andrew Barker, in his on-line lecture on Heaney’s early poem “Digging,”  comments on the phrase “seeing things,” saying that we usually mean one of two things when we say it.

The first is what he is emphasizing in Heaney’s poems, the art of closely observing detail: in the case of “Digging,” the sound of a spade sliding through gravel, the squelch of the turf being sliced from the bog, the coolness of potatoes fresh from the ground.

But, Barker points out, there is also another meaning of someone “seeing things”– where it does not refer to someone with keenness of perception, but to someone who sees things that are not there. “He’s seeing things” quite often means that someone is seeing things that are not visible to others, someone who is delusional or fantasizing.

And then Barker names the poet William Butler Yeats as one who sees things that are not there.

I’ve let that percolate in my mind for a while.  And then I thought of Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” perhaps my favorite poem of all and one that I can recite at will.

The poem goes like this:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread.
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
  
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
  
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Apart from the subtle rhymes (“wand” and “wood” or “moon” and “sun”) or the beautiful images of “moth like stars” and “a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair,” the poem is notable because Yeats is seeing things that are not necessarily visible.

(Do I need to mention that a silver trout transforms into a human female as the speaker turns to “blow the fire a-flame.”)

And yet there is a larger truth sitting on that cottage floor and running out the door. A larger truth that has the speaker spending his lifetime chasing that vision–and believing that he will catch it.

I used the word “vision” purposefully,  for it is in that unseen vision that Yeats reveals a truth, a truth about passion, aspiration, dreams and goals. It is the dream of what one wants and the dedication of following that dream, of chasing that dream “till time and times are done.”  For it is in chasing the dream–not in catching it– that a full life resides.

Yeats saw that truth…and saw it in a way not visible to most. (Never mind, that Yeats actually spent much of his life chasing after his “glimmering girl,” Maude Gonne.  That’s beside the point!)

Certainly, we are all not going to fully realize our dreams; we will not all achieve what we set out to do. And often times not attaining what we thought we wanted may be the best thing to happens to us.  But the chase must continue –and it defines our lives.  If we are not looking forward–through “hollow lands and hilly lands”–if we have given up on that “glimmering girl,” then we are merely alive.

As I have said, this is one of my favorite poems–and it has often been put to music. If you search YouTube for “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” you will find scores of versions done by everyone from Christy Moore or The Waterboys to Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins. Donovan did a version, as did Don MacLean on banjo.

Anyway, below is my favorite version, by Christy Moore.  Give it a listen…

A pint of plain is your only man

I first published this post in February 2014. But I thought I’d re-post it in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, 2016. If nothing else, scroll down to the video at the bottom to see Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners recite Flan O’Brien’s grand old poem.

“The Workman’s Friend”

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousey strife,
You have still got a darlin’ plan
You still can turn to a brighter life –
A pint of plain is your only man.

— Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)

illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

As far as drinking is concerned I am a very simple man.  I like my “pint of plain,” a glass of whiskey every so often, and a bottle of wine.  That’s about it.  I’ve never tasted a margarita or any of its offshoots, the great variety of martinis does not interest me, and anything blended or frozen seems more a dessert than a drink.  And if a pint of Guinness is not available, I drink whatever stout is …or a simple lager.

So, I took my trash to the curb last Thursday night, a raw and a frozen night, and afterwards walked the three doors down to the corner taproom.  Across the bar, two people were downing shots of a “Fireball.”   The woman on my right told me it was a cinnamon flavored whiskey.  “It tastes just like Big Red chewing gum,” she said.

Now that’s the problem right there.

I don’t want my whiskey to taste like cinnamon chewing gum.  I want my whiskey to taste like whiskey.  There are vodkas now that taste like cupcakes and chocolates, and mixed drinks that capture the delights of a sweet shop.  I know what is going on.  But I’m against it.  It’s the infantilization of alcohol and it is a very lucrative business.

So fast forward a few days and I am in another city sitting in the hotel bar.  I have no obligations for a good four hours, so I sit in a snug with a good book and a large glass of Jamesons.  Life feels very good.

There must be a convention of sorts at the hotel because a number of similar young men come walking in,  all at once.  I’ll have a “Black and Blue” says the one.  Make mine a “Black Apple” says another.  The bartender guessed that the “Black and Blue” was a Guinness and Blue-Moon.  And he was told that the “Black Apple” was Guinness and Cider.  (I later learned that a “Black Apple”  is also called a “poor man’s Black Velvet” which is a century-old mix of Guinness and champagne.)

But there was something in me that bristled at their orders.  Leave a drink alone, why don’t you, I wanted to say. Why must you always be fussing with it?

Maybe I am getting old. (Actually no “maybe” about it!) And maybe I am getting crotchety.  But for me, as the wonderful Flann O’Brien once wrote, “a pint of plain is your only man.”

Here’s Ronnie Drew and the rest of the Dubliners reciting Flann O’Brien’s poem, with pints of plain in their hands:

The Auld Triangle for St. Patrick’s Day

I was organizing a bit of a  celebration of Irish poets for St. Patrick’s Day at my school, and I figured I might contribute by singing a tune or two. Really, I was only going to do an a capella version of “The Auld Triangle”–the wonderful song/poem from Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage.

Brendan-Behan

Brendan Behan

And “The Auld Triangle” was in my mind because I had decided to sing it tonight (the 17th) at Steven’s Green. My old band was playing there and I usually get up and do one or two songs with them. And “The Auld Triangle” was what I was thinking.

When a colleague e-mailed to ask if he could bring a penny whistle to the poetry thing I told him my plans. He wasn’t familiar with the tune, but said he would look it up on YouTube. I don’t know what he found–Luke Kelly’s version with the Dubliners is the first hit–but I went and found this Ceiliuradh (celebration) from 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall.

This video captures everything that should be celebrated about being Irish: it is cross-generational, it revels in its history, it enjoys itself and others. The camaraderie among the players–Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine and Paul Brady (all once members of Planxty), Imelda May, John Sheehan from the Dubliners, Lisa Hannigan, Glen Hansard, Elvis Costello, Conor O’Brien from Villagers–is infectious and joyful.  But moreso it is the audience–an audience joyously celebrating its heritage in the “veddy-proper” Royal Albert Hall.

I watched the video three times and became more choked up with each viewing. Happy St. Patrick’s Day–watch the video here.

 

Sunday Music–Black 47

For the next two weeks, Philadelphia is awash with “Irish” bands.  Most of them are home-grown and are playing at bars that are on the maps of organized pub crawls for the next two weekends. (Why do so many “Irish” pubs have initials. P.J. O’Toole’s, J.D. McGullicuddy’s, J.P. Monaghan’s?  Wasn’t any Irish kid called by his full name? Or was calling him by his initials a way to ensure that  he becomes a bar-owner?)  Anyway, there is a lot of live Irish music around right now–some of it great, some of it less so.  It is also the time when a slew of national/international Irish-music acts come through the area.  The Chieftains played here Friday night; the SawDoctors are in town Tuesday night; and Lunasa is here on Wednesday night.

Black 47 was at the World Cafe on Friday night, the 9th.  They were brilliant. It had been 10 years since I saw them last, and they are still musically tight, politically raucous, and extraordinary fun. The front man, Larry Kirwan is a dynamo of energy, the brass section is still stellar, and the newer additions (for me, that is) have added to the fun and musicianship. Black 47’s music is raucous and tender,  a mix of Springsteen and the Clash, heavily infused with Celtic melodies and themes.  The songs are filled with stories about life in NYC,  paeans to Irish heroes, recollected broken hearts and broken bones, and clarions for political action.

Larry Kirwan, as I said, is prolific. I once saw a play of his on Governor’s Island at the Guinness Fleadh in 1997–now collected in his book of plays, Mad Angels: The Plays of Larry Kirwan.  At the moment he is doing publicity for his latest novel, Rocking the Bronx; he has his own radio-show Celtic Crush on Sirrus/XM radio, has put together a Celtic Kid’s album and book, and is working on a musical with Thomas Kenneally (author of Schindler’s List).

But put that aside for the time.  Two nights ago I saw Larry Kirwan and Black 47 do what they do so well–deliver a raucous, fun rock show.  Below is an old video from perhaps their most famous song–anyone who was in NYC during the 90s heard in every joint that had a jukebox.  So here it is: Black 47’s “Funky Ceili” (The video ends abruptly before the classic line, “Does he have red hair and glasses” and showing an infant with Larry’s horn-rims, hah!):