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.

Too Late for Poetry?

Never Too Late for Poetry
On the eve of National Poetry Month, March 31, I led a workshop on How to Read a Poem at Highland Community College in Freeport, IL.

For an hour, several dozen students and guests from the community came to engage in “holding [a poem] to the light like a color slide.”

First we held actual photographic slides from the 1970s (younger attendees had never seen them) up to the library’s florescent ceiling lamps. Then we took a stanza of a poem into our hands and gazed at it in the same way, turning it slowly and carefully, so that our senses, memories, and emotions illuminated the colors. The real details in the lines combined with our personal lenses created several dozen visions of the poem.

After the presentation, a woman from the audience came to speak with me. “I never knew,” she said, “that this could be done. My whole life, I thought there was just one right answer to a poem, and I was never smart enough to find it.”

She was around seventy years old.

Watching a woman become liberated after so many years of poetry intimidation was powerful and inspiring. It was also sobering to see how early classroom experiences can affect our attitudes for decades–until those attitudes are given a chance to change. Perhaps you had a teacher, most likely well meaning, who presented poems as puzzles or equations to be solved rather than invitations to open. Perhaps you or your children have had to take standardized tests that reduce poems to multiple choice answers. But it’s not too late.

No matter how you’ve experienced poetry in the past, you can face a new poem as the brave new world it is. Beauty instead of boredom, emotions instead of elusiveness, and grace instead of grades. You can read and wonder without the pressure to get it “right,” even just enjoy the sounds of words and rhythms of lines. But it takes work to stop working sometimes. The effort is to arrive with no other agenda than enjoyment.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying some of the exuberant work of Pattian Rogers in her book Firekeeper: Selected Poems. Open this gorgeous invitation, “Place and Proximity.” Open it again and again. Don’t worry about “meaning” as you read it, but eat, breathe, and survive on its “stars,” which are, of course, its gleaming, sizzling words.

Place and Proximity

I’m surrounded by stars. They cover me
completely like an invisible silk veil
full of sequins. They touch me, one by one,
everywhere—hands, shoulders, lips,
ankle hollows, thigh reclusions.

Particular in their presence, like rain,
they come also in streams, in storms.
Careening, they define more precisely
than wind. They enter, cheekbone,
breastbone, spine, skull, moving out
and in and out, through like threads,
like weightless grains of beads
in their orbits and rotations,
their ritual passages.

They are the luminescence of blood
and circuit the body. They are showers
of fire filling the dark, myriad spaces
of porous bone. What can be nearer
to flesh than light?

And I swallow stars. I eat stars.
I breathe stars. I survive on stars.
They sound precisely, humming in my nose,
in my throat, on my tongue. Stars, stars.

They are above me suspended, drifting,
caught in the loom of the elm, similarly enmeshed
in my hair. They are below me straight down
in the deep. I am immersed in stars. I swim
through stars, their swells and currents.
I walk on stars. They are less,
they are more, even than water
even than earth.

They come with immediacy. They are as bound
to me as history. No knife, no death
can part us.

Firekeeper Selected Poems

Photo by PS Lee, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.