Listen Now Again! Brief Thoughts on Seamus Heaney’s “The Rain Stick”
Encountering a truly great poem involves a double shock: first of surprised delight, and then of startled recognition. Just as all dear friends were strangers before the moment of meeting, and then became partners in the dance of friendship – that looking through the other’s eyes and seeing things both old and new with fresh vision – so the best poems, once strangers, become good friends. Seamus Heaney’s “The Rain Stick” is one such poem. I had known Heaney’s poetry only through his translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf; then, in reading Malcolm Guite’s wonderful book Faith, Hope and Poetry I encountered “The Rain Stick” for the first time.
All great poetry is in a sense personal; even while I know that the poet is speaking to all readers, yet I still feel that here, in this moment of present-tense reading, he is speaking to me, right now. Heaney’s “The Rain Stick” struck a particular chord with me because he captures the haunting evanescence of experience. We listen to the noise of the rain – we have a conversation with a friend – we know a moment of beauty and peace – and then it is gone, passing into memory even at the very moment of experience. Before I came to faith, I spent many years trying to hold on to experience, trying to make sense of the world that I was passing through when I thought that it would all end in death and dissolution and nothingness. What if I never have this joy again? What if I never find my way to this destination that I long for? What if there is, in truth, no beauty?
But the “what if?” of transient experience is answered in the great I AM – if we will but listen.
Listen! Indeed that is what Heaney calls us to. Listen – for in the fragility of that moment, we enter into something deeper. Our longing is not a frustrated and empty grasping after nothing, but the orientation of the heart toward the satisfaction of all longing.
Listen! Heaney reminds us of the deeper permanence of beauty, grounded in the Word that sustains all creation.
Perhaps what moved me most in “The Rain Stick” is Heaney’s assurance that true joy wells up from an inexhaustible source. Upend the rainstick again, he tells us: “What happens next / Is undiminished for having happened once, / Twice, ten, and thousand times before.”
True joy will not run out, nor will it fade from use. “Listen now again.”
Here is Heaney’s poem – found in the collection The Spirit Level. (You should go buy it.) And here is my reading of it, since Malcolm Guite reminds us that this is a poem that needs to be spoken and heard as well as read. Enjoy!
The Rain Stick - Seamus Heaney
Up-end the 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;
The glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Up-end the stick again. What happens next
Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, and 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.