Songwriter U: Seamus Heaney on the Wisdom of Wooden Spoons

Inspirational words on the courage required for artists to embrace the secret knowledge of personal truth

When the late great Irish poet Seamus Heaney was awarded with the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature in honor of his twenty volumes of poetry, the Swedish Academy praised him “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

He discovered that exalted past and everyday miracles throughout Northern Ireland, from County Derry, where he was born, to Dublin, where he lived most of his life, and in the world beyond. He taught at both Harvard and Oxford, and was a poet beloved by many songwriters for the lyrical grace and pastoral beauty of his poetry.

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Seamus Heaney. “What matters at these occasions is not the economic givens of your background but the state of readiness of your own spirit.”

What follows is the bulk of his commencement speech at Kenan Stadium for graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, May 12, 1996. Though not directly about songwriting, it applies to the challenge all artists face in modern times of maintaining hope, and the courage to embrace your own personal truth, your “secret knowledge.”

It has been quoted over the years in different places, but often just a few lines out of context. His language sings in these short passages despite the severe editing. But the fullness of his message can’t be understood without the entire speech, which we are providing today. It isn’t too long.

Without the gentle story about his own mother and her wooden spoons – not unlike Wiliam Carlos Williams’s famous red wheelbarrow with white chickens in its recognition of the symbolic power of simple things – the wisdom offered isn’t grounded in the same way, and loses its poignant warmth. It’s like hearing only the chorus of a great song, while cutting out the verses. So here’s the whole song for you, from an Irish poet in North Carolina at the end of the 20th century, unexpurgated again.

Seamus Heaney.

Commencement Ceremony
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, May 12, 1996

SEAMUS HEANEY: Class of ’96, today’s date, May 12, will always be a memorable one for you, and for me too. From here on, the mark of the tar is upon all of us, academically and indelibly: so let us rejoice in that, because now we fare forth as Tar Heels of the mind, and the world w here we are to make our tarry mark in lies all before us.

But then, when it comes to faring forth, today’s date, May 12, has always been an auspicious one. Especially in my native province of Ulster, for long ago it was designated a kind of second May Day, the official start of the summer season; and so May the 12 became the day when the great hiring fairs took place at towns all over the countryside, when working men and working women would assemble there to be hired out for another term to new masters and mistresses.

The hiring fair was a cross between a commencement day and a slave market; it was a carnival shadowed by the tyranny of economic necessity, but it did produce a real sense of occasion. It was a hosting of the local clans and it brought the singer and the musician and the whole community on to the streets, with all their wares and in all their finery. ; so I thought that I could celebrate this great hosting of the clans here at Chapel Hill.

I thought I could celebrate that old connection and celebrate, of course, my own new one here today by quoting from a ballad I used to hear when I was growing up in County Derry.

It tells the story of a young woman setting out with high hopes of romantic adventure on May the 12th, to the May Fair at Magherafelt, which is the one sizable town in our part of the country. But it begins like this:

                        I am a bouncing fair young girl,
                              my age is scarce sixteen,
                         and when I'm dressed all in my best
                                 I look like any queen;
                         bright, young, at play, who wants a way
                                 to go and sell her wares,
                         on the twelfth of May I made my way
                                 to Magherafelt May Fair.

                         My mother's caution unto me
                              was not stay late in town,
                         for if you do, my father and I
                              both on you we will frown.
                         Be wise and shun bad company
                              and of young men do beware --
                         how smart you be, don't make too free
                                 in Magherafelt May Fair.

Well, I would like to quote the whole thing, but at this stage it’s enough that the bouncing fair young girl has started on her journey; like the heroine of a thousand other ballads, she has roamed out on a May morning to encounter whatever fortune puts in her way.

And over the years, because of her confidence and buoyancy, she has become for me the guardian angel of all such moments of faring forth; for it matters very little on occasions like this whether you are the tomboy daughter of God-fearing rural parents in 19th-century Ulster or the atheist heir of tobacco barons in our own date — what matters at these occasions is not the economic givens of your background but the state of readiness of your own spirit.

In fact, the ability to start out upon y our own impulse is fundamental to the gift of keeping going upon your own terms, not to mention the further and more fulfilling gift of getting again all over again — never resting upon the oars of success or in the doldrums of disappointment, but getting renewed and revived by some further transformation.

Getting started, keeping going, getting started again — in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others. So this rhythm is what I would like to talk about briefly this morning, because it is something I would want each one of you to experience in the years ahead, and experience not only in your professional life, whatever that may be, but in your emotional and spiritual lives as well.

Because unless that underground level of the self is preserved as a verified and verifying element in your make-up, you are going to be in danger of settling into whatever profile the world prepares for you and accepting whatever profile the world provides for you. You’ll be in danger of molding yourselves in accordance with laws of growth other than those of your own intuitive being.

The world, for example, expects a commencement speaker to arrive with a set of directives, a complete do-it-yourself success kit, which he or she then issues to the graduating class; the commencement speaker’s appointed role is to provide a clear-cut map of the future and a key to navigating it as elegantly and profitably as possible. To be a mixture of Polonius and Tiresias, of bore and of bard.

But while that is what the world prescribes, the inner laws of this particular speaker’s being make him extremely anxious about laying down laws or mapping the future for anybody. In fact, this speaker believes that all those laws and directions have to be personal discoveries rather than prescribed routes; they must be part and parcel of each individual’s sense of the world. They are to be improvised rather than copied, they are to be invented rather than imitated, they are to be risked and earned rather than bought into.

Indeed, I have to say that for me, this very commencement address has been a matter of risk and improvisation from the moment I said I would do it, because I kept asking myself how I could reconcile my long-standing aversion to the know-all with a desire to say something worthwhile to you.

I therefore did what I increasingly do in moments of crisis nowadays: I asked my daughter what I should do.

“Just be yourself, Dad,” she said. “Talk about yourself. Tell them a few stories.”

And this advice was a great relief to me because I thought, “Yes, that’s true. Some of the greatest wisdom speakers in the world went about their work that way. So, Seamus, what was good enough for Aesop and for Jesus should be good enough for you. Relax. For a start, for a start, tell them something about getting started.”

Like for example, the Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak’s definition of talent: Talent and the art of writing is “boldness in face of the blank sheet.” The sheer exhilaration of those words is already enough to convince you of their truth, the truth that getting started is more than half the battle.

One of the great Sufi teachers expressed the same wisdom in a slightly different way. “A great idea,” he said, “will come to you three times. If you go with it the first time, it will do nearly all the work for you. Even if you don’t move until the second time, it will still do half the work for you. But if you leave it until the third time, you will have to do all the work yourself.”

“The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives; true to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.”

My own story in this regard, however, is more a story about a false start, although it is indeed a story about the importance of getting started from that first base of your being, the place of ultimate suffering and ultimate decisions in each of you, the last ditch and the first launching pad.

When I was in primary school, I was once asked to do a composition entitled “A Day at the Seaside” — a common, indeed a predictable subject in a country school in Northern Ireland years ago.

So, I wrote about the sunlit sand, of the yachts in the bay, of the perfect sand castles and of diving in the pool, even though the weather was usually rainy and it was a coal boat rather than a yacht in the bay and I was a farmer’s son who couldn’t have passed through the University of Carolina because I couldn’t in fact swim at all, never mind diving into a pool.

But my chief lyrical effort was reserved for the description of the bucket and the spade I said I had used at the beach. The sky-blue enameled inside of the bucket , as bright as a graduating class at the University of North Carolina, and the technicolor outside, all its little canary yellows and greenfinch greens and canary yellows. And then I also praised the little spade for being so trimly shafted, so youngster friendly, so small and scaled down.

“Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive, but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom.”

Seamus Heaney, photo by Micheline Pelletier. “But years later what came back to me was the thing I did not describe, the truth I had suppressed…”

And so I got my grade for making up a fantasy and delivering the conventional goods, pictures I had seen on postcards of other people’s days at the seaside. But years later what came back to me was the thing I did not describe, the truth I had suppressed about a day which had actually been a day of bittersweet disappointment. An account of what had actually happened would have been far more convincing as a piece of writing than the conventional account I had rendered up , far truer to life altogether.

I have to say this even it is on Mother’s Day, but when my mother was out for the day — indeed especially when she was out for the day — she was a frugal woman, far too self-denying and far too much in thrall to the idea of keeping going to indulge herself or her children in the luxury of catchpennies that she would see like buckets and spades.

After all, we were only out for the day; next morning we’d be back on the land, up in the morning for our porridge, out to the field to bring the cows to the byre and after that to deliver the milk to our neighbors.

But still, in her mother’s heart, she desperately wanted to do something for us, so off she went to a hardware store and bought not the conventional seaside gear that we desired but a consignment of down-to-earth farm equipment which she could utilize when she went home: instead of bucket and spade, she brought us a plain tin milkcan and a couple of wooden spoons, durable items indeed, useful enough in their own way, but wooden spoons for Gods sakes, totally destructive of all glamour and all magic.

I hope it will be obvious why I tell you this: I want to avoid preaching at you but I do want to convince you that the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.

Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom. And you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle.

Luckily, in a commencement address you only have to get started and keep going. Luckily for you and for me there is no necessity to start again. But for you today, class of 1996, starting again is what it is actually all about.

By graduating from this great and famous university, you have reached a stepping stone in your life, a place where you can pause for a moment and enjoy the luxury of looking back on the distance covered; but the thing about stepping stones is that you always need to find another one up there ahead of you. Even if it is panicky in midstream, there is no going back. The next move is always the test. Even if the last move did not succeed, the inner command says move again. Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained.

Back in Magherafelt May Fair, for example, our young woman didn’t dazzle the crowd as thoroughly as she had hoped she would. The song ends like this:

                        So I bade them all good evening
                               and there I hoisted sail,
                          Let the best betide my countryside,
                               my fortune never fail.
                          Then night coming on, all hopes being gone,
                               I think I will try elsewhere,
                          at a dance or a wake my chance I'll take
                               and leave Magherafelt May Fair.

Class of 1996, Tar Heels of the mind, when I said at the beginning that the world was all before you, I was echoing what the English poet John Milton said at the end of his great poem, “Paradise Lost.” And I am not the first one to have echoed that line.

Almost a century-and-a-half after Milton wrote about Adam and Eve being driven out of Eden, into history, having to keep going by the sweat of their brow, Milton’s words were echoed by another English poet, William Wordsworth, at the start of his epoch-making autobiographical poem, “The Prelude.” By making the entry into adult experience an adventure rather than a penalty, Wordsworth was announcing the theme I have addressed this morning; he was implying that history, and our individual lives within history, constantly involve the same effort at starting again and again.

Whether it be a matter of personal relations within a marriage or political initiatives within a peace process, there is no sure-fire do-it-yourself kit. There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you. But there is a pride and joy also, a pride and joy that is surging through this crowd today, through the emotions of your parents and your mothers particularly on Mother’s Day, your families and your assembled friends. And through you yourselves especially.

And so, my fellow graduates, make the world before you a better one by going into it with all boldness. You are up to it and you are fit for it; you deserve it and if you make your own best contribution, the world before you will become a bit more deserving of you.

Seamus Heaney. “The thing about stepping stones is that you always need to find another one up there ahead of you…The next move is always the test. “

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