Listen to a Poem: Seamus Heaney’s “The Rain Stick”

Listen to a Poem Seamus Heaney The Rain Stick Rain on Roof
Up in northern Illinois, we’ve been enjoying the soft, silver rainfall of September. These autumn rains signal closing time, tamping the red maple’s leaves to the grass. We want to go inside, drink tea, and hunker under blankets. Our rooftops slick with a steady, sleepy percussion.

Seamus Heaney, one of the world’s most-revered poets, captures the sound of rain—by describing an object that also captures the sound of rain.

His subject, the rain stick, is a hollowed-out cactus branch filled with small pebbles that makes the sound of a gentle shower when tilted. According to NASA’s Climate Kids website, “[t]he origin of the rainstick is not fully known, but many people think that it probably came from a group of indigenous people known as the Diaguita from the deserts of northern Chile.” By playing this instrument, the musicians hoped to summon the rain.

By writing this poem, Heaney summons not only the song of the rain stick, but the mystery and imagination of sound. And that mystery comes alive when we listen:

The Rain Stick

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

— Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level

In Introduction to Poetry, Billy Collins likens a poem’s sounds to a bee hive. What words and phrases buzz for you in this poem?

Cactus stalk?




In a way, “The Rain Stick” offers its own instruction for how to listen to poems. Choose a favorite poem, and read it aloud. Then read it again. Listen and listen more, even if you don’t think you “get” the poem. What do the sounds say? How do they speak? If you read the poem the next day, does it drop its words on your rooftop in a different pattern or mood?

Keep going. Think of your favorite playlist or “mix tape” from younger days. You listened to the same songs over and over, not because you wanted to drain them of life but because they gave you life, perhaps a bit differently, each time around. They became a part of you.

As Heaney writes, “What happens next/Is undiminished for having happened once,/Twice, ten, a thousand times before.” Good poems, like the sound of rain, never get old.

Photo by Marcus Ward, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

Listen to a Rain Playlist

Read a reflection on Frost’s famous autumn poem: Nothing Gold Can Stay

3 Cool Ways to Increase Your Poetry Reading

Poetry Reading Plan Flame Flowers Gemma Stiles

What’s a Reader to Do?

Poetry makes you a better writer, a better reader, and it fills a space in your life that nothing else can in quite the same way that poetry does.

I know this. But I’ve often struggled with formulating a good poetry reading plan. I’ve watched stacks of poetry collections teeter on my nightstand. I’ve stood frozen in bliss/terror at the hundreds of colorful volumes in independent bookstores. I’ve even struggled with the guilt of not having read “enough” of the classics.

For this school year, however, I’ve developed a plan, and it’s one you can easily adopt for yourself if you wish. These three cool tips for bolstering your poetry reading can provide you with some structure, a sense of accomplishment and, above all, the wonder and beauty of hundreds of new poems in your life.

1) Go all-out fangirl/fanboy, with one classic poet per season.

Carolyn Forche, a wonderful poet whose works include the haunting collection The Country Between Us and the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, suggests choosing one pre-WWII poet per season and immersing yourself in his or her work. You can also absorb any other information you’re able to find, such as letters, biographies, and interviews. She suggests keeping these materials at your bedside or favorite chair–wherever you normally do your reading–and picking up the work whenever you can.

This approach has been liberating for me. At the end of the summer, my nightstand and bedroom floor were piled with books. Many people welcome this “problem,” but for me, the image was a daily reminder of the time I lacked, even a source of guilt.

So I took the books down to the basement office, shelved the ones I suspected I wouldn’t get to for awhile and built a “to-read” stack that would remain safely out of my daily line of vision.

Then I ordered Wallace Stevens: The Collected Poems.

While studying creative writing as an undergraduate, I read a number of the famous Stevens poems, such as “Anecdote of the Jar,” “The Emporer of Ice Cream,” and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. In my book How to Read a Poem, I feature one of his earlier poems, “The Snow Man,” as an example of expert imagery. But I’ve always known I had so much more to learn from Stevens. Personally, I’ve been interested in this insurance executive/poet because, like me, he lives an “atypical” poet’s life.

These days, I keep just one thick book on my nightstand. I take a few moments each night to enter the mysterious rooms of these Stevens poems, savoring lines like “But on the first-found weed/She scuds the glitters” or “Fill your black hull/With white moonlight.” Even if I don’t really “get” the poem (one reason, I believe, I avoided Stevens for so long), I allow the light to shine through and the words to buzz until I feel the poem in my bones.

2) Remodel your bathroom–with poetry

Forche also recommends staying in tune with contemporary poetry by always keeping a current volume in one of those other popular reading spots, the bathroom. The choices are endless. Where do you begin? Word of mouth is always my favorite way to pick up ideas for new collections of poetry. When I start to recognize a fresh poet’s name from Facebook or Twitter, I pay attention. Reviews from Tweetspeak Poetry or The Poetry Foundation also abound with interesting titles. Sometimes, the best approach is to just pick a book you’ve never heard of from the poetry shelf at your library or local bookstore. That’s how I discovered Li-Young Lee and Sharon Olds as a college student–I closed my eyes and picked.

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve had Andrew Hudgins’s selected poems, American Rendering, in my upstairs bathroom. In fact, it was the first book I grabbed from that basement “to-read” pile. I’ve always enjoyed his work, including Tree, which I use to teach line breaks in How to Write a Poem. This book includes many of his best poems from six volumes that cover a twenty-five year period. His voice is fresh, dark, and funny, but I often get through just one stanza at a time.

“If you can’t finish a slim volume of poetry per week,” Forche says, “you’re not spending enough time in the bathroom.”

Duly noted.

3) Get poetic, by email

You can subscribe to a poetry delivery service that sends daily poems to your inbox. I suggest Every Day Poems, sponsored by Tweetspeak Poetry. Poets and editors lovingly curate a variety of classic and contemporary poems paired with beautiful artwork, exploring a monthly theme. Consider the daily poem as important as any of your other emails and take a few minutes to breathe and read (and find a little inbox peace!). With 260 weekdays in the year, you will have read the equivalent of several more books of poetry by the time next autumn falls again.

Photo by Gemma Stiles, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

How to Write a Poem—An Unlikely Beginning

Green Apple How to Write a Poem

Squeezed finances. No fun, right?

But I can’t help thinking what would not have happened if I’d thrown caution to the wind and spent too much money a couple of years ago.

In the summer of 2013, my husband and I found ourselves canceling our family’s annual road trip because, well, we ran out of funds. After grieving the loss of mountains and rivers and relatives, I decided to do something I hadn’t planned: sit on my couch in the flatlands and write weekly articles about Billy Collins’s poem, Introduction to Poetry.

Realizing that each stanza in that poem offers instruction about how to get the most out of reading poetry, I wrote an article on each section, every week, throughout the summer. Eventually, those articles turned into the core of a book that also includes an anthology of poems—How to Read a Poem.

When L.L. Barkat, editor at T.S. Poetry Press, asked me to write a companion volume, How to Write a Poem, I told her I needed time to think about it. A few hours later, I decided yes.

There are a lot of poetry-writing books on the market—many truly wonderful ones that helped me in my undergraduate years and still guide me today. While most books take the approach of offering a number of exercises that generate a number of poems, I wanted to go deep with the process of writing one poem. How do you go from the seed of an idea to a fully realized, well-crafted, revised and polished piece, while still keeping your soul alight?

I remember spending hours at my college’s student commons, notebook and Twizzlers in hand, struggling through one line at a time. Ultimately, spending time isn’t the problem. (I would argue the more time spent—if directed—the better.) However, support and guidance can help that writing time feel less like a struggle and more like an adventure, a personal and artistic transformation.

In How to Write a Poem, I start you with freewrite prompts to generate ideas. From there, I show you how to turn that sprawl of stream-of-consciousness words into a framework on which to hang a poem. Then we gradually shape the poem, one step at a time, to help it come alive:

from Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry”

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

         how do I “color in” my poem with imagery?

or press an ear against its hive.

         how do I make my poem buzz unforgettably with sound?

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

         how do I suggest emotion and meaning with my lines?

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

         how do I create those “a-ha!” moments?

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

         how do I step away from the poem enough to allow for mystery and interpretation?

After helping you delve into each of these aspects of craft, the book guides you through Peter Murphy’s Revision Style Sheet as you perfect your poem. Finally, you discover exciting ways to share your work, both through traditional publication and other community venues.

Throughout How to Write a Poem, you gradually find the balance of respecting literary craft while maintaining your authentic voice. Both of these tasks are a lot of work—and immensely rewarding.

The accomplished musician practices her scales for hours on end. She also practices interpreting music with her own artistic touches and emotions. Why not the poet, too? Why not write your best before inviting the reader to listen and make meaning?

I may not have vacation pictures to show off from a couple of summers ago, but I’m collecting words from the writers who have been taking their own poetic journeys. The albums are filling with unique sights and memories. I look forward to hearing about your travels, too.

Photo by Photo4jenifer, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.

How to Write a Poem

Check out How to Write a Poem!