It must have been some time after we left Belfast in 1972 that my father first talked to me about Seamus Heaney. Heaney had been a student in English at Queen’s, Belfast, where my father, Arthur Terry, taught Spanish. And they had both been members of the Group, meeting regularly to discuss one another’s poems and translations. Heaney brought his first poems along, and my father brought his translations, mostly from the Catalan, of poets such as Gabriel Ferrater. When, late in life, my father completed a volume of Ferrater’s Les dones i els dies (Women and Days), Heaney wrote the preface, though the book did not see the light of day till after my father’s death in 2004. In it Heaney writes fondly of the meetings of the Group in Philip Hobsbaum’s flat: ‘There we would be sitting, aspirants all, young teachers, lab technicians, civil servants, research students, undergraduates, and Arthur, who … seemed to know every poem ever alluded to, from whatever language, [but] sat there among us as if he too were just beginning.’ When I first became interested in poetry, in the mid-1970s, the poets I came across were the ones everybody was reading, all published by Faber: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell and, of course, Heaney. It seems extraordinary, now, that my father had known several of them. Larkin had been his friend in Belfast (and my mother’s boss in the library at Queen’s), and, later, at the University of Essex in the 1970s, Lowell had been a colleague.
I remember two things my father said about Heaney. One was that after Heaney had been working for a while at the English faculty at Queen’s, my father had advised him not to pursue an academic career, but to concentrate on his poetry. The other was that he had contributed a few commas to Heaney’s early poems. I have often wondered which commas; I have even wondered what sort of royalties might attach to them were they acknowledged, and have examined the foolscap copies of poems I still possess from the period of the Group, but found no clues. There are some mostly illegible marginalia added by my father – occasionally, with the help of a magnifying glass, I can make out a comment, such as ‘What is his antecedent here?’ next to the lines ‘The scattered, ambushed/Flesh of labourers’ from ‘The Tollund Man’ – but no commas.
My father wasn’t one to make things like this up, so the commas must be there somewhere, and it may well be that he added some other punctuation: the odd full stop, perhaps even a semi-colon or colon. Indeed, in his marginal notes to the first edition of Heaney’s debut collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966), which Heaney inscribed to my parents with a couplet from Yeats (‘Think where man’s glory most begins and ends/And say my glory was I had such friends’), my father has circled the comma at the end of the tenth line of ‘Mid-Term Break’ in pencil, adding: ‘ʘ better’. The ʘ looks like a single cell of frogspawn, just as the comma, similarly encircled in my father’s faint HB pencil, resembles a tadpole in a jam jar. Though it didn’t make the published edition, in my mind I have changed the comma to a full stop, as my father wished, and I imagine it surrounded with a circle, as in my father’s marginalia. It is the only evidence I can find that Heaney’s punctuation was on my father’s mind. It also, I think, improves the poem, adding a break mid-stanza.
I still enjoy reading Heaney, long after most of the poets I know have stopped reading him, and I still find a music in his lines that I struggle to find elsewhere in contemporary poetry, but I sometimes wonder if what draws me back to him is a subconscious search for the commas added by my father, a subconscious search, in other words, for my father himself. As I read Heaney, I often have the impression that I am reading him through my father’s eyes, guided by the faint pencil scrawlings of his marginalia. One of the things he does persistently is to circle a word, then circle another further on in the poem, connecting the two by a curvacious line, so that some of the poems look as though they have snakes or eels (or tadpoles) swimming through them. The repetition of the words ‘live skulls, blind-eyed’, for example, at the end of section two and the beginning of section three of ‘At a Potato Digging’ are marked this way, and it draws our attention to Heaney’s use, even in his first collection, of internal repetition to underpin the architecture of his poems, rather than relying on line-endings. And it explains why the poems remain solid when Heaney abandons rhyme altogether, as he does in the best poems in Death of a Naturalist, and in much of his later work – in particular the long sequence of twelve-line poems ‘Squarings’ from Seeing Things (1991). When I see these marks, they connect not only the words on the page, but me to my father. And I sometimes wonder if my turning to writing poetry, shortly after my father’s death – kickstarted by my reading all the volumes of poetry he had accumulated in his lifetime – was an attempt to connect to him, to hang on to him desperately even after his death.
My guess is that if my father added commas, it was to the poems that made up Death of a Naturalist. By poring over my father’s marginalia to Heaney’s early work, by paying close attention to the punctuation, even, recently, in an enthusiastic fit of un-creative writing, going so far as to type out the whole of that collection with the punctuation alone remaining, I’m getting as close to the commas added by my father, and as close to my father, as I ever will.
In his essay ‘Sur le vers français’, Paul Claudel writes that the ruptures characteristic of the primordial elements of thought, the white spaces (‘les blancs’) which for him are the wellsprings of poetry, persist in punctuation marks, even after these spaces have largely been eliminated from the surface of the writing itself. This would explain why I am drawn to poetry that uses an excess of punctuation, even poetry that consists entirely, or almost entirely, of punctuation, such as Tim Atkins’s collection 1000 Sonnets (2010), or the punctuation poems of Oulipo, such as François Le Lionnais’s ‘Poème basé sur la ponctuation’ of 1958. In my own first volume of poetry, Oulipoems (2006) – which contains several poems that allude to my father’s death – I included a poem consisting entirely of punctuation, ‘Censored Poem’. And I remember now that in an uncharacteristically bold moment I sent the volume to Heaney, and that he wrote back, almost immediately, full of enthusiasm for the Oulipianisms, which were new to him. ‘Years ago in Belfast Derek Mahon established the “good craic” test for poetry – one which your Oulipian gift passes with flying colours.’
Heaney was an instinctive Oulipian, or, as Oulipo would put it, an ‘anticipatory plagiarist’. Nowhere is this more clear than in the sinister sestina ‘Two Lorries’ from The Spirit Level (1996), where he homophonically rings the changes on end words: ‘load’, ‘lode’, ‘lead’, ‘payload’, ‘load’, ‘explode’. In ‘The Diviner’, from Death of a Naturalist, he describes the work of a water diviner who holds a forked hazel stick which jerks down ‘with precise convulsions’ when the man approaches water. If I were a water-diviner, this might provide the answer to my search: commas, as we are reminded by my father’s marginalia, have something watery about them – and the title poem in Death of a Naturalist is organised around frogspawn, whose ‘fattening dots burst into nimble/Swimming tadpoles’. Commas enhance motion and rhythm, the words flowing round them as water flows round a rock in a stream. When we begin to see them in this way, commas take on multiple significations – punctuation, language, water, rock, tadpole – allowing Heaney to perform the double function of his poem, writing simultaneously about a ‘flax-dam’ and about language itself.
My second attempt at a punctuation poem, in Oulipoems 2 (2009), was a page scattered with commas and inverted commas, entitled ‘Tadpoles’; the following poem, entitled ‘Frogs’, was a blank page. At the end of ‘Death of a Naturalist’, the frogs invade the flax-dam, driving the small boy Heaney away: ‘Some sat/Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting./I sickened, turned, and ran.’ In my poem the frogs leap off and disappear; words and punctuation vanish. When I wrote this, I considered it a typographic joke, but now I think it was grappling with something deeper.
The sudden stop – ‘l’arrêt de mort’ as Maurice Blanchot called it – takes us back to the ʘ my father added to ‘Mid-Term Break’. If this ʘ symbolises frogspawn, as the comma comes to symbolise tadpoles, it suggests one reason my father would have wished to make this substitution: the comma, especially when surrounded by a circle like a tadpole in a jar, is out of place. It belongs in ‘Death of a Naturalist’, where jampotfuls of jellied specks are ranged on window-sills at home and on shelves at school, bursting into tadpoles. What is the effect of substituting a frogspawn ʘ for a jar of tadpoles in ‘Mid-Term Break’? On one level, it seems appropriate to the funereal scene, for if the tadpole is moving towards life and towards metamorphosis, the spawn is a step closer to death. This ʘ stands as a mise en abyme of the poem’s final images: the child knocked down by the car lies in his four-foot box as in a cot, snowdrops and candles (another item that could be symbolised by the ʘ) soothing the bedside. And yet, if a full stop marks an end, a finality, a death, the ʘ contains within itself, paradoxically, the presence of life, and the promise of continuing life, as it grows into a tadpole then metamorphoses into a frog. The child’s life isn’t buried, done and gone, as the poem’s final lines, and the finality of the closing rhyme, might make us think: ‘No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.//A four foot box, a foot for every year.’ Rather, it continues in Heaney’s lines, as Heaney himself lives on in his poetry, and as my father continues to live in the full stops and commas he added, or didn’t add, to the verse.
I remember now a third thing my father said about Heaney, that he claimed writing and publishing poetry was like dropping a feather into the middle of the Grand Canyon and watching it fall. I think of my father dropping a ʘ into the middle of ‘Mid-Term Break’. It is marked in the first edition only in my father’s pencil, and it is not there in the five subsequent paperback editions published between 1969 and 1980. But in checking the proofs for this article, we discovered that the original comma has been replaced by a full stop in the paperback edition of 1990, and in the New Selected Poems 1966-87. At some point in the 1980s, the ʘ that had been waiting since 1966 made its quiet impact.