It stretches before us, crisp and unsullied. Poised as we are at the start of this bright, shiny year, we are free to imagine without hint of disappointment all the wondrous things we might experience, witness, learn and achieve in months to come.
Although I do not make new year’s resolutions, I do try to hold a hopeful approach at this time. Perhaps that is why the following lines felt so resonant to me. They are from ‘Station Island’ by Seamus Heaney.
‘…The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night
dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,
let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’
These words are spoken by the ghost of James Joyce to an uncertain Heaney who is here both poet and protagonist. In the poem, he makes a pilgrimage to Station Island, a site on Lough Derg in Donegal that is sacred to St Patrick. Along the way, he encounters and engages with the spirits of a number of significant figures in his life, with writers like Joyce among them.
This injunction, to “write for the joy of it” and “Cultivate a work-lust”, is found in the concluding section of the twelve part poem. It is a final, fierce denial of the poet’s disquiet that reads to me like a rallying cry for all those who quaver before the page. The words urge a certain audacity and a readiness to accept both the role and responsibility of being a writer, despite any lingering misgivings any of us – Heaney included – may have.
Later in the poem, Joyce speaks again, telling the poet:
‘… it’s time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.’
I am indebted to David Fawbert, whose excellent website on Heaney’s poetry not only gave me some insight into ‘Station Island’, but also advised me that an “elver” is a young eel. It is a bewitching image, and an apt one too. Those glimmers of movement, the flash of something beneath the surface. That’s what writing is like, with words and ideas flickering somewhere, perhaps in reach, “in the dark of the whole sea”.
As we enter this new year, I add my own plea to the voice of Joyce in this poem. I invite you to decide it is time to swim. Find your frequency and seek out those subtle gleams. Then, equipped with grit and grace, with courage and wonder, “Take off from here”.
Go and strike your note.
Do you set an intention for your writing at this time of year? Do you have a favourite poem or quotation that inspires you to write? What feelings do Seamus Heaney’s words stir in you?