About the Blackbird

 

Ciaran Carson

In October 2003, on my first day as director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, I was walking up the little path to the School of English at 2 University Square when I spied a blackbird scuffling around in the shrubbery. I thought of the Early Irish poem known in English as ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’. It looks like a typical piece of marginalia in its brevity and clarity, an example of how Irish scribes would sometimes so divert themselves from the copying of ecclesiastical texts. For all its apparent spontaneity, it is cunningly worked, written in the complex metre know as snám súad, literally ‘the swimming of the sages’, or ‘poetic floating’. I was familiar with Seamus Heaney’s translation, and I thought I might float my own attempt at it. And the poem suggested a fitting emblem for the Centre. Hence our logo, the elegantly spiky wood engraving of a blackbird singing from a ‘whin’, or gorse bush, by the artist Jeffrey Morgan.

‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ has been much translated into English. The versions in the margin of this text are but two possibilities. There are, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, at least thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird; and the blackbird can be heard in many ways. Poetry resides in that ambiguity, and that is why the blackbird has been chosen as the emblem of the Seamus Heaney Centre, and its beak, neb or nib, as the title of the Centre’s journal, The Yellow Nib.

 

Int én bec

ro léc feit

do rinn guip

            glanbuidi

 

fo-ceird faíd

ós Loch Laíg

lon do chraíb

            charnbuidi

 

9th century Irish

The small bird

chirp-chirruped:

yellow neb,

            a note-spurt.

 

Blackbird over

Lagan water,

clumps of yellow

            whin-burst!

 

Seamus Heaney

the little bird

that whistled shrill

from the nib of

            its yellow bill

 

a note let go

o’er Belfast Lough—

a blackbird from

a yellow whin

           

 Ciaran Carson