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Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems, 1966-1987 -Andy heads back to Northern Ireland with a Nobel laureat

May 12, 2014

This may not be a terribly long post. It’s a few weeks since I finished reading these poems, and while I engaged with them far more than I did with Sylvia Plath’s last year, they left me a little colder than Anne Sexton’s the year before. Also I’ve realised that, while the iPad lends itself to the reading of fiction, it is a little less poetry-friendly – I mentioned the inability to “flick” through Murdoch’s Under the Net, but noted that it wasn’t a big problem. Poetry for the most part doesn’t have fiction’s narrative arc, which you can use on an electronic device to narrow down what you’re looking for; with poetry, unless you’ve read very closely, and very slowly, you’re flying blind with a Kindle’s contents page trying to find something you only vaguely remember. I don’t think I’ll be reading much poetry on the iPad in future, and I may even buy Heaney in hard copy = although I’ll probably opt for a later version of his collected work.

Boring intro. Soz.

new-selected-poems-1966-1987Heaney, Catholic, was born in County Derry, Northern Ireland, less than 100km from where my dad, Protestant, was born in County Down 12 years earlier. Heaney spent the last 40 years of his life – more than half of it – in Dublin, where he died. This suggests something about where his sympathies as far as the Troubles might’ve lain. His poetry – when it addresses the Troubles, which are present but not pervasive in his work – suggests a reserved, uncertain alliance with the Republican cause. I spent four years of my childhood in Northern Ireland and remember much of it, and while Heaney’s side of the province was definitely more Catholic than the solidly Loyalist area of my childhood, much of his poetry had some resonance for me.

Heaney summons the landscape and the weather of Ulster, its history and politics, the quirks of its English and accents. He is a poet obsessed with language and vocabulary and this often gives his poetry an intellectual distance; sometimes he engages emotionally, but often he is interested in the words themselves, and how they are put together. This can sometimes result in poetry that is so dense, or so calculatedly constructed, that it defies anything less than the closest of readings. And so the casual reader can read, and enjoy the beauty of the language and the way Heaney puts his words together, but must declare defeat in terms of actually making any sense of what’s being conveyed. Not all of Heaney’s poetry is like this – some of the poems, especially those concerning people working, and working the land, and the landscape itself, are mesmerising and magnificent. But some of the others, on first, and second, and even third and fourth readings, just … aren’t.

There are a few reasons for this. One is Heaney”s interest with language and words, and using words that are not in common usage. I couldn’t find it on the iPad, because of the lack of the flick, but there’s one poem in particular that I was really enjoying until I got to the last line – which contained a word I had never seen before. It didn’t even look like a word I might’ve seen once, somewhere. I should’ve looked it up in the dictionary and scribbled the meaning in the margin – but of course, while you can do the dictionary thing with an iPad, you can’t do the scribble. I should’ve done a lot of dictionarying and scribbling with this book. I didn’t. Maybe I will if I buy it in hard copy.

Some of the poetry also relies on an understanding of Catholicism that I just don’t possess. Being a Protestant-raised atheist n all. Although ironically my favourite part of this collection was Station Island, a series of 12 poems set on an island in County Donegal, which borders Northern Ireland but is part of the Republic. It’s presumably based on the Catholic Stations of the Cross ceremony that features in their Easter ceremonies, although apparently there are 14 stations, not 12. How this series of poems relates to Catholicism I have no idea, but they have something to say about Northern Ireland and religion in general that I could relate to.

I believe there is a later and more comprehensive collection of Heaney’s selected poetry. I’ve said it before, over the life of this blog, and so has Netty, and as far as I know neither of us has actually done it. But I’ll be sorely tempted to find that bigger collection, in hard copy, in the near future. He’s not my favourite poet, but he is one of the more intriguing.

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