Farting frogs and the death of a poet

There are those dark days of low self esteem when I drag my creativity into the basement for a stern chat. I point the interrogation lamp into its face and ask: What good are you, truly, other than offering a momentary distraction from the real world? Go on, justify yourself!

My creativity struggles and tries to convince me that arts and entertainment are vital for humanity.

In response I demand an example of when the arts have actually changed anyone’s lives.

The answer, when it whimpers back, usually points to Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet who died last week.

Seamus Heaney wrote the poem that woke me up to poetry. The poem is called Death of a Naturalist. I discovered it in 7th Form. I had always loved the sound of words but I was blown away by just how grunty Heaney’s language was. Suddenly my own writing felt like a puddling tricycle next to the thunderous motorbike that Seamus Heaney brought to the party.

Death of a Naturalist is about a boy who stumbles upon an army of frogs. Take a moment to read this sentence out loud:

“Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked on sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails.”

It’s a wonderful sentence. The words roll around in your mouth and threaten to detonate. (If you’re Irish it’s even better, but I’m terrible at accents.)

Here’s another: “The slap and pop were obscene threats. Some sat poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.”

I’m unfairly squishing Heaney’s words into an unpoetic space, incomplete and out of context, but these little phrases spun me into a life-changing paradigm shift. Sitting there at the back of Mr Baber’s English class, that was the moment I understood how you can supercharge an image by playing with the sound of the words.  It was the moment I feel in love with poetry.

I went home and tried (and failed) to wrestle my own words into juicy, meaningful clumps. Heaney’s poem made me want to write poetry. As a bonus, it made legitimate use of the word farting. Tell me that’s not great art.

Another of his poems, Digging, has resonated with me for years. The poet of Digging struggles to justify his vocation when real men are labouring hard to provide for their families. “I’ve no spade to follow men like them,” Heaney writes. In its own way Digging asks, what good is poetry?

The arts can seem futile and inconsequential if you’re in the wrong mood and surrounded by naysayers.

What good was that film, painstakingly shot and edited by all those people, which I watched once and no longer care about?

Why did a sculptor bother making that thing I just walked past?

What good is poetry, all that effort for a few lines that just sit there not helping to fix anyone’s car?

There are many good answers to these questions. For today I’m going to stick with this: If art does nothing more than inspire other people into making more art, that’s a win for everyone.

Seamus Heaney didn’t cure my allergies or teach me how to build a shelf, but his poetry had a definite impact on my life.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be published in the same anthology as Seamus Heaney. I’d like to think that when he was flicking through his contributor’s copy he paused to read a poem about Memorial Park by a guy from New Zealand called Marcel Currin.

I don’t know if he did read it, but if he had contacted me and said, “Hello Marcel, Seamus here, I liked yer wee pome,” (told you I’m bad at accents), I would have been thrilled to reply, “Thanks Seamus. You got me started.”

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 6 September 2013. Reproduced with permission.