Monday, September 01, 2014

Discovering a Treasure Trove: the poems of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney Photograph Edit.jpg
Seamus Heaney

I have to confess to something very sad.  I had never heard of Seamus Heaney till recently.  I mean to say, he is a greatly acclaimed Irish poet, the winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature who died only a year ago in 2013.  And there was a programme about him on Country File.  I missed all this.  Where was I?

I think this dire omission is because my mind has always been somewhat closed to ‘modern’ poetry.  I’m an unashamed Romantic Philosopher myself and my joy in poetry is derived from the works of William Blake, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and I might kindly go as far as the War Poets, Yeats, Ted Hughes - just about - and a few others.  Then I stop.  (I’m sorry, I can’t abide Sylvia Plath and always felt sorry for Ted faced with this neurotic, narcissistic wife) 
So basically, in the eyes of many, I am a poetry ignoramus.

But thankfully I have a wonderful literature tutor who talks to us about many styles and aspects of literature.  This lady is 80 years old but with a mind sharp as a razor, a memory that holds a library of literary knowledge and who walks about as if she was still only 40.   Her undying enthusiasm and love for her subject, her readiness to learn about new subject matter herself is so inspiring.  I went rather reluctantly to her afternoon talk on Seamus Heaney.  The poems she sent us to bone up on looked incomprehensibe, even pecualiar at times.  Did I really care about this poetry?  

However I went.  And as always, Angela turned the afternoon to one of fascinated interest and exploration into many aspects of this poetry.  Interesting understanding I'd like to share. 

It's all so different when poetry is read aloud.  We then hear the melodic cadences, the unusual words that suddenly aren’t so strange but perfectly appropriate.  Hearing Heaney read his poetry in his soft Irish lilt gave new meaning to it all. When we learns the story behnd it the poem and understand the background and life of the poet, it gives his work a new dimension, a background picture.  All springs to life as if a light has been cast upon a dark corner to reveal a treasure hiding there. 

Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland but lived all his life in Dublin and always associated himself with the Republic of Eire.  He is not an overtly political poet and yet there many little words and phrases that give away his background and the constant underlying fear that was in the hearts of the Irish people.  One poem called A Constable Calls from an album called North (1975) shows this fear well.  It describes a scene from Heaney’s young life when a policeman came to visit the family.  he bore with him an official ledger to take tillage returns, in other words to assess exactly what was produced and grown.  The poem is full of references such ‘the pedal treads (of the policeman’s bicycle)  hanging relieved of the boot of the law’ 

Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.

The Americans might not find this so alarming but the British are unused to policemen with revolvers. However, it was a necessary fact of life in Northern Ireland at that time. The poem ends with the knowledge that his father has withheld the fact he had planted a few turnips at the bottom of the potato field and not declared them.  Guilt and fear enters the boy's heart on his father's behalf.  As the policeman goes we have the lines:

A shadow bobbed in the window.
He was snapping the carrier spring
Over the ledger.  His boot pushed off
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.

The last line evokes the sound of the wheels perhaps on cobbles or rough ground but it also has the menacing notion of a bomb.  And there were plenty of those going off in Ireland during the troubles. So many troubled young people living with this kind of fear as an everyday image even today.

Heaney wrote a good deal about his childhood as have many poets.  My favourite is Blackberry Picking from his first album Death of a Naturalist (1966).  Most of these remembered childhood scenes start with a sense of innocence and joy which suddenly turns to dismay and even revulsion as he encounters Nature’s darker side.  The blackberries so plump and sweet and delicious when picked can't be kept.  They begin to grow mould and turn sour and stink.  He wants to keep them forever but it’s impossible (certainly in those days of no freezers!)  But nature cannot be captured like this, all is death and decay eventually. Thus is Paradise Lost and the garden of Eden left behind and the boy is obliged to grow up and face the adult world of toil, violence and disillusion.  This always reminds me of Wordsworth’s ‘shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy’ or the poetry of William Blake which speaks with equal sorrow about our lost innocence and childhood joy.  I’ve even written a poem like this myself, a feeble one I know. There are so many poets who have expressed that intense sense of loss of a childhood time when the mind and heart is free of the corruption of adult knowledge, empty of later experiences and ready to find every new experience a source of wonder and awe.  

Heaney, the eldest of nine children, lost his young bother aged four in a car accident.  He describes the sadness and pain of this in his poems.  He wrote many poems about family which are full of tenderness and love. His ability to paint a portrait or a scene is wonderful and many words in the poems appeal to the senses.

The automatic lock clunks shut (The Blackbird of Glanmore)

She sat all day as the sun sundialled
Window splays across the quiet floor.  (Chairing Mary)

…its flesh was sweet
Like thickened summer wine; summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue.  (Blackberry-Picking)

I could go on but maybe you should just take a look at this poems for yourself!  Thank you my dear tutor for bringing this poetry to me and opening my mind to something new and wonderful.  And thank you Seamus for writing these evocative poems. 

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.