“The Guttural Muse” was originally published in the June 25, 1979 issue of The New Yorker. It was reprinted in the September 9, 2013 issue just after Heaney’s death on August 30.
Seamus Heaney is said to have texted his wife right before his death: “Noli timere.” Have no fear. Don’t be afraid.
This week The New Yorker printed “The Guttural Muse.” It’s hard to summon up the nerve to write about the poem, given that awe has to be the first thing you feel when reading Heaney. But I think he means us to proceed anyway.
I don’t know anything about the method he used to write the poem, but I do know that the poem is both simple and rich, which leads me to think that time and process went into it. I don’t mean he couldn’t have sat down and written it quickly, with genius. I mean that if he did, still, he’d have already been mulling over, musing about, those words, those ideas, those images, those juxtapositions, for a while.
But this is what I know about poetry. It doesn’t work to read a whole bunch of poems at once. Poets don’t write a whole bunch of poems at once. They take their time with them. And so it’s okay for us to take our time with them. One way to take our time is to just muse upon them, re-read them, sleep on them. Another way is to write down what you notice or hear in the poem and see where it takes you. In response to the thoughts that follow, I look forward to seeing a few alternate readings pop into our in-box.
To me, one of the things Heaney is talking about in this poem is the hard-won authority of age, so hard won it’s painful. But the main thing he’s talking about is how important it is to listen to the earth, listen to the people of the earth, and listen to yourself, and draw life and energy from what you hear. Listening is important to Heaney; in his Nobel lecture (here) he takes time to talk about listening.
Heaney is no obscure Sibyl. (In fact, in that Nobel lecture, he talks about having avoided reading Stevens, Rilke, Dickinson, and Eliot.) But this poem is compressed, like peat is compressed, like a stone wall is a compression and reorganization of the landscape, like a farmhouse is the natural compression of season, memory, and desire, and of life and death. So I really think it’s okay to take the time to let the poem talk to you, give it room to speak. This poem has a beautiful surface, but it also has dimension and structure. But in Heaney’s case, it’s a structure the way water is a structure, the way wind is, the way music is.
The poem talks about the fish that lurk beneath the slow muddy water, who hint of their presence with bubbles. So the words of the poem have trails that bubble up, as do the images, as does the time the poem refers to, as do the juxtapositions that are part of the poem’s architecture.
This is my first encounter with this poem. My great grandparents spoke Scottish Gaelic, so when I hear that word guttural in the title, I think Gaelic. Newly revived after having been suppressed by the English, Gaelic has to be identified with the Irish soul. In this poem, the old poet hears young people talking in a parking lot, and possibly, what he hears is Gaelic, or possibly what he hears is accented by it. The poem does not place him specifically in Ireland; what he hears could be some other patois that reminds him of Gaelic, but whatever it is, it is the natural language of the people. And first and foremost, it seems as if that natural language of the people is his primary muse. So, that guttural in the title reminds me of Gaelic.
That he means to associate the young people with “the guttural muse” is clear from the way he describes their voices as thick, the way Gaelic could sound to an English speaker. But he also wishes to associate their voices with the word muse, given that he says their voices are comforting.
Their voices remind him of the bubbles that the tench send up; signs of life and breath that might otherwise be hard to see, given that tench are a fish found in slow moving, tangly waters. He reminds us that the tench are “doctor fish,” thought in folklore to heal other fish. So he is suggesting that the young people are healing to him, sending their voices up to him at his window in the hotel.
He says he felt like some old pike. Pike are twice the size of tench, at least. Heaney is separated from the young people by being double their age or more. When he thinks of himself as an old pike “badged with sores” I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem “The Fish,” in which the poet realizes this fish has battled for his life, and has the proof of it. In fact, in the Nobel lecture, Heaney mentions Bishop as someone he admired. For sure, Heaney is thinking he is old; the pike is a big predator that can grow to a great size and live to a relatively great age, possibly ten or twenty years. Such a pike would have made a fight for his life, covering quite a bit of territory, satisfying his hunger.
He reminds us that he is healed by being in touch with these younger people, with their soft-mouthed life, something he senses from the girl in the white dress especially. When he calls her soft-mouthed, he makes a pivot on guttural. What to others might sound guttural sounds soft or pleasing to him.
So she, the girl in the white dress, is his guttural muse, representing beauty, laughter, softness, happiness, and energy — life, in short. He cannot make out what she is saying, but he can hear in her voice the way it swarmed and puddled into laughs, as if she contained something like water and something like multitudes of life within herself, such that the gathering together finally overflowed into laughter. The girl in the white dress now seems to be Ireland itself, seeming to be, with her swarms, a source of life. She echoes, too, the white farmhouses that are an emblem of Irish country life, farm and family.
Further echoes of country life rise from the language. When he says the night airs are muddled, those airs feel stirred, confused, and muddy. Even the air is earthy. And he breathes it in.
But about that guttural muse. You can’t think guttural without thinking language, and you can’t think guttural without thinking gutter. Heaney may be emphasizing how important it to remember and honor the way the Irish were treated as gutter-born by the British for centuries, but the gutter is also the sluice for rain water and the means for catching it. He may also be thinking of gutter as an earthy environment, as a source for life, such as the brackish marsh holds both the tench and the spawning pike. The rich, contradictory, marshy earthy mess of multiple connotations to guttural is exactly what makes it a muse.
In an odd way, muse can be experienced as a verb — as in the way someone thinks something over. If you have a glimmer of that verb sense, then the guttural becomes a noun — the gutter-all. Felt that way, the gutter-all are the people of the earth. Us. From that point, one makes a natural shift from earthiness to life itself. The gutter-all muse would be the inspiration he draws from what is the essence of people, especially those people who draw their living from the earth.
After all, the title is very strange. One would imagine a muse to have a silken voice, not a harsh one. But among the associations that the reader hears in the word guttural is gut. If the gut is our muse, it is hunger, thirst and desire that are the muse — the desire to stay alive, the desire to live, the desire for connection. Simultaneously, though, gut suggests gutted, as in a gutted pike. And if we make that jump to gutted fish, it’s not a far leap to “gutted-all” as a cognate to guttural. That death guts us all makes the gut’s desire to live all the more significant.
When a candle gutters out, it weakens and dies, something the poet is keenly aware of, feeling as he does like some old pike. And of course, there is the association with the gutted fish that he may be someday soon. But until then, he yearns for life.
Echoing the idea of life, there is the natural gutter of the female body, the source of human multitudes, and the receptacle for communion and joy. The pike is neatly phallic, and the guttural muse is woman herself — her shape and her potential. The old pike that is the poet doesn’t imagine himself being healed by the slimy skin of the tench, he shifts instead to wanting to swim in touch with the soft-mouthed life of the woman.
Just as guttural appears to have shifting associations for the reader, muse does as well. The reader’s first thought is that muse is meant to be understood as that thing that is an inspiration or guiding spirit. Muse is not just an actor; it can also be a state of thought. Given that an archaic meaning of muse is to wonder at or marvel, a muse is also a state of being in which a person experiences an essential, felt, and marvelous series of thoughts; thus, the poet’s experience of his own poem.
The poem is a series of associations and juxtapositions, all urging us to live.
Don’t be afraid, he says. Don’t be afraid to listen to the guttural muse, that inspiration that arises out of the earth, the farmhouse and the local. Be alive, he says; don’t be afraid to be alive. Listen to the guttural muse.