Seamus Heaney died a few days before my family went on holiday, so his collected poems came with us. While some members are more devoted to poetry then others, the assembled group are all fairly keen readers. The matriarch, on day three, requested that we all assemble to read one or more of Heaney’s poems aloud. While the turnout was solid, those who opted for a snooze instead were noted and pronounced feckless. The lines quoted below are in the order of the poems selected on that afternoon.
‘Digging’ at the start, as many know this one from the GCSE poetry anthology, and despite this, the ear still loves the sound of the ‘cool hardness of new potatoes’ – you can turn them over in your palm and rub the pad of your thumb over the clots of earth still clinging to the skin. The keen edge of his father’s spade ‘nicking and slicing’, making ‘curt cuts’ in the earth he wrote of so well and often.
Next was ‘Mid-term Break’, where the image of a blooming ‘poppy bruise’ summons the multi-hued knees every child gets more vividly than purple or yellow ever could. Heaney’s acute powers of observation were illustrated here by the exasperated rush of his mother’s ‘angry tearless sighs’.
He wrote ‘The Skunk’ while working as a writer in residence in California. It is about missing his wife Marie, and also about a skunk, ‘night after night I expected her like a visitor’, ‘tense as a voyeur’. The clenched waiting for the patter on his porch (and possibly a ghastly odour) as way of giving voice to his separation is excellent.
The gathering sense of dread in ‘Blackberry picnic’ as the children scramble to pick every last ‘glossy purple clot’ before he ‘Felt like Crying’ when the cache starts to ferment and rot is tangible. This is written, as was his right and style, in his own dialect, which is part of and yet a slightly different lexicon from the language of Ireland. The former is a peninsula to the latter, separated by the tide of shifting context.
The next poem was in fact ‘The Peninsula’, read aloud when we scattered my grandfather’s ashes in the Solent on the isle of Wight, where he sailed in a spectacularly unsuccessful fashion with my grandmother, and where the surroundings and the situation commanded the vision of ‘islands riding themselves out into the fog’. Poems like this allow the listener to uncode landscapes, by observing ‘water and ground in their extremity’, there are flashes of insight before ‘you’re in the dark again’. No sugar coating here.
The poems ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (on gathering frogspawn) and ‘The Grauballe Man’ are too densely packed to be picked apart in rapid time, but these were the final offerings and demand your full attention, when you have half an hour and a quiet corner.
I was lucky enough to see Heaney in conversation with Karl Miller and Andrew O’Hagan at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2012. At the time I was conscious of the fact this was a privilege, especially when he paused over a section of ‘Digging’ when reciting it from memory only to receive a quiet nudge from his wife in the audience. Naturally that afternoon now retains an even weightier resonance in my memory. Although the Book Festival is one of the least insane parts of Edinburgh in August, it is not usually a relaxing place. For that afternoon, however, the main auditorium was full of old jokes, exhumed memory and gentle prompting as the three on stage created a pocket of calm. Heaney was clearly a wonderfully charming man as well as a dazzling man with words, and one of the great things about his language is that you can translate it endlessly, spinning out the effect of his words endlessly.
You can hear Seamus Heaney reading from his poetry at the Poetry Archive.