Sometimes while preparing to sit a morning meditation, I grab a poetry book to set the tone for the day. Sometimes it’s a game, reaching blindly on the shelf and grabbing a book and turning randomly to a page. But today, I had a clear desire to read a poem by a poet whose work I rarely read, a venerable Irish poet named Seamus Heaney. So I searched in the H’s and came up empty-handed. Then reached behind the books and fished out a couple of Ted Kooser’s books, but still no Seamus Heaney. So I settled for a few poems by Maxine Kumin and went off to teach for the day.
Tonight, I gathered with a group of men and almost fell off my chair when one of them announced, “Hey, did you hear that Seamus Heaney died?” How strange is that? I’m sure we all have stories of such mysterious coincidences, but it doesn’t make them any less remarkable. Why did I feel this strange connection to someone whose work I barely know— really two poems—and why did this thought pop into my head that I should read him right around the time he passed away? And where the heck is that book?
One of his poems I remembered was about dowsing, that ancient art of searching for underground water with a hazel stick. The poem speaks eloquently of the idea of calling, the way in which the secret waters reveal themselves only to those who are worthy by gift, intention and a disciplined practice. Such commitment to one’s work grants us certain powers that are not freely accessible to the casual bystander. And yet our passion can be so strong that merely gripping the wrists of our student can make the stick quiver with electric energy. Below is the poem:
Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick
That he held tight by the arms of the V:
Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck,
Of water, nervous, but professionally.
Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.
The rod jerked down with precise convulsions.
Spring water suddenly broadcasting,
Through a green aerial its secret stations.
The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till nonchalantly.
He gripped the expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.
Thank you, Mr. Heaney. I know not which secret message you hoped to stir in my mind, but it did drive me to search again for the book and now I found it, a book of selected prose titled “Preoccupations.” I shall read it and perhaps discover why I thought of you this morning. In fact, I just now randomly opened to a page and read this:
“All the activity and push of the enterprise, the aim of the poet and of the poetry, is finally to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole.”