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

How to Read a Poem: From the Classroom of Jody Lee Collins

How to Read a Poem Seedhead

I was asked to serve as a substitute for a middle- and upper-elementary summer school gig, teaching Reading and Vocabulary to Korean-American students.

When we finished the required novels, I had 4 days’ worth of teaching left and saw that Poetry was on the syllabus. So, I cooked up some lessons using How to Read a Poem.

We looked at the basics of Imagery: when you read the poem, what do you see, hear, taste, touch, smell? What does the poem remind you of? Do you have a connection to the poem?

The lure of flying was a theme in another anthology I used, and we tied it to “The Eagle” from Runyan’s book, with the 5th and 6th graders. I’d promised them we’d go fly paper airplanes on our last day, and that we did.

After the experience, we came in and (eating my homemade chocolate chip cookies) brainstormed some words and phrases and came up with a simple poem. The four of them participated and we wrote together:

Paper flies
floating in the air
higher, lower
crashing in the air.
They circle around in the breezy wind
trees waving by the wind.
Laughing, happy
children playing
Paper here and there.

When I got with the middle school kids, we read “Tattoo” and “Mowing”, as well as “The Eagle,” and brainstormed responses and phrases. The responses were hesitant.

To wit, precocious Mike asked, “Why do people write poetry anyway?”

I mumbled a bit, saying something about being succinct and the power of having to be precise and concise, writing for emotions and so on. He seemed unconvinced.


There was Joseph. He quietly told me after the experience, “Mrs. Collins, I wrote my own poem. Here.”


The noises from kids who are yelling about
As the soft breeze brushes us
Flying the airplanes, making them drift,
The tip of the tongue in your mouth
As you are determined to win,
The feeling of victory as your airplane flies afar
And the scent of joy dissipates as everyone departs.

—Joseph Hwang

I was overcome.

Photo by ladydragonflycc, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Story from Jody Lee Collins.