In which, almost 20 years later, Netty is still – happily – lost, unhappy and at home with Heaney …May 14, 2014
I reckon it was around 1995 that I first encountered the work of Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Back then, Melbourne’s The Age newspaper published poetry in one of its Saturday sections – actually, it still does. It mightn’t even have been the whole poem, but it was certainly the following lines:
“Out there in Jutland/ In the old man-killing parishes/ I will feel lost,/ Unhappy and at home”
I had never been to Ireland – indeed, I haven’t still, and possibly never will. I don’t know much about the country, bar that it’s very green, brews Guinness (which I have never drank), has no snakes (!) and its peoples speak in very distinctive accents. And I have only a very fleeting knowledge of the Troubles, Catholics v Protestants, the IRA, Sinn Fein, et al.
But those words quoted above struck a very deep chord within me. I read them, and I knew what Heaney was talking about. I knew exactly how it felt to be lost, unhappy and at home. I clipped those lines out of the paper and stuck them on the noticeboard in my kitchen, alongside postcards, photos, cartoons and a column on Tiger Woods, an emerging golf prodigy at the time who was tipped for very big things indeedy.
It wasn’t until years later that I discovered those lines came from The Tollund Man, one of Heaney’s famous “bog” poems, from the 1972 collection Wintering Out. Heaney, a 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature winner for his poetry, plays and translations (notably, Beowulf), died just last year aged 74. ANRC was due for a poet’s inclusion, so Heaney seemed the perfect fit (and a good excuse for me to get off my bum and finally read his New Selected Poems 1966-87, which has been sitting on my shelf for a while now).
I’d long lost that newspaper clipping, but I always remembered those lines, so I was keen to explore Heaney’s work. In finally doing so, two things struck me. Firstly – not unlike Roberto Bolano’s One Night In Chile (see our January archives) – it quickly became apparent that the reader would get a whole other, heightened level out of Heaney’s prose with a proper working knowledge of the political and religious rifts that wreaked havoc in Ireland in the mid to late 20th century. Andy, whose knowledge of it is certainly far superior to mine and who actually lived in Ireland as a child, goes into this in far more depth in his blog entry than I can here, so I strongly suggest you check out his thoughts.
Secondly, ultimately it doesn’t really matter. Because if you love poetry, you can’t not love Heaney’s canon. His language is masterful, his words exquisite, his structure and composition near-perfect. You (read, me) might not understand it, but you can’t not be touched and left in the thrall of his words. This is seriously, seriously good stuff. Truly a thing of beauty.
Here’s the rub, and I say this every single time we write about poetry in this blog – in my opinion, poems are meant to be read aloud. Slowly, deliberately, purposely. Savoured, not devoured. So that you can plunge headlong into their rhythm and cadence – an area in which Heaney absolutely excels.
Like Andy, I found a lot of these poems quite dense. Sometimes the subject matter went over my head. But I was so busy letting the words wash over me and marvelling at the prose’s measure that I scarcely noticed – or didn’t care. And let it be known that it’s not all war and strife and theology – family and friends poignantly rear their heads throughout these pages (the heart-rending Mid-Term Break, and Casualty); so, too, the intricacies of relationships and their pitfalls and shortfalls (the ever-so-subtle Night Drive, A Dream Of Jealousy).
My copy of New Selected Poems is bountifully bookmarked with Heaney’s many turns of phrase that appealed to me. Here are but a couple:
“As he stood sentry, gazing, waiting, he thought of putting his ear to one of the abandoned holes and listening for the silence under the ground” (Nesting Ground, 1975)
“I drink to you/ in smoke-mirled, blue-black, /polished sloes, bitter/ and dependable” (Sloe Gin, 1984)
“ … that I may escape the miasma of spilled blood, / govern the tongue, fear hybris, fear the god/ until he speaks in my untrammelled mouth” (Stone From Delphi, from Shelf Life, 1984)
Heaney also catalogues the highs and lows of being a writer. From eschewing his family’s farming background (“Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests/ I’ll dig with it” *); from sardonic self-doubt (“What is my apology for poetry?” * and “How did I end up like this? / I often think of my friends’ / Beautiful prismatic counselling/ And the anvil brains of some who hate me” *) to embracing the muse (“The main thing is to write/ for the joy of it … Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest … Let go, let fly, forget. / You’ve listened long enough, now strike your note” *)
See what I mean? Seriously, seriously good stuff!
In short, if you love poetry and you are not yet acquainted with Seamus Heaney, then do yourself a favour and don’t wait any longer. I can’t believe it took me nearly 20 years from first stumbling across and being entranced by those few scant lines of The Tollund Man. I certainly won’t be stopping at New Selected Poems, and I would love to hear Heaney reading his own work. Off to Amazon for me then …
* Digging, 1966; Glanmore Sonnets, 1979; Exposure, from Singing School, 1975; Station Island, 1984