Intimate, wise and enduring
Seamus Heaney had been intending to compile a personal selection of his best work prior to his death in 2013. Now his family have taken on the task, choosing one hundred poems which trace an arc across his stellar career, writes MARTINA DEVLIN
In numerology, 100 represents energy, independence and infinite potential. Could there be a more appropriate number for Seamus Heaney’s latest collection, an anthology that traces an arc across his stellar writing career? In his latter years, the Nobel Laureate intended to compile a personal selection of his poetry but death intervened. Now his family has done it for him, whittling down his corpus for the collection titled, with pleasing simplicity, 100 Poems.
Half-remembered favourites crop up here, like old friends at a reunion, alongside more recent work. Here’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ in which he imagines the saint on his knees praying, and forced into maintaining the posture when eggs are laid in his outstretched palm. Despite the discomfort, there is a bonus — Kevin finds himself “linked into the network of eternal life”.
There’s his tribute to Nelson Mandela, ‘The Cure at Troy’, also associated with the heady days of the Good Friday Agreement when hope and history rhymed.
Here, too, is ‘From the Republic of Conscience’ composed for Amnesty International — “a frugal republic” where people should speak on their own behalf and in their own tongue. There is puckishness and pain in his poetry, alongside elegy and honesty. Above all, his love for family glows through. His wife is ever present, her shadow falling across many of the pieces included, such as ‘Scaffolding’ in which he compares their relationship to a sturdy wall.
Had he lived in a different age, Heaney might have been a seanchaí because he is a natural-born storyteller. His imagery, too, is memorable: a rowan is “like a lipsticked girl” while a skunk is reminiscent both of the chasuble at Mass and his wife bending over, rooting in a drawer for her nightdress.
His Gaelic heritage mattered to him and he knew his country’s history, but he was on close terms with the classics, too, and figures from the ancient world often make an appearance. Faber & Faber, hardback, 184 pages, €12.99
‘Requiem for the Croppies’ recalls the United Irishmen of 1798 who died “shaking scythes at cannon” but had a rebirth when barley grew out of their graves. It was published on the 50th anniversary of 1916. What might he have produced for the centenary two years ago?
Neither apologising for the Troubles nor mythologising them, he embedded those dark years in their context. A journalistic quality emerges in some of this poetry, as in ‘Casualty’ when he incorporates loyalist graffiti after Bloody Sunday in 1974: Paras 13 Bogside 0. But he does not shy away from “our tribe’s complicity” in the Troubles. In ‘Funeral Rites’ his tone is curt: “Now as news comes in/of each neighbourly murder/we pine for ceremony,/ customary rhythms.”
And in ‘Punishment’ he explores the contradictions in the republican tradition where girls are tarred and feathered for fraternising with soldiers, identifying a recurrent pattern which scapegoats women.
Heaney believed in the power of poetry and his conviction carried weight. Out of his rural Northern background he created work that was accessible, intimate, wise and enduring. In his hands, depictions of childhood, farm life and tight-knit communities become universal. Through his eyes, we smell the newly-turned soil, see the courting couples startled out of sand dunes, hear families reciting prayers, watch him peeling potatoes with his mother.
The past is a living entity for him. ‘Follower’ shows his father to us, a farmer guiding a horse-drawn plough, his eye “mapping the furrow exactly” and himself as a worshipful small boy stumbling after or riding on his back, “dipping and rising to his plod”. Now his father follows him, he says, a reminder of the cycle of life.
Heaney managed the feat of appearing to be an ordinary man, even while he was plainly extraordinary. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past” and I remember, as a young reporter, being instructed to ring him up about the win. He spoke for a few minutes, before saying gently, “that’ll do now” — a Northernism which translates as let’s have no more fuss.
At readings, I was struck by his warmth, humility, that intellect, and the rhythm of his Co Derry accent. You can’t easily separate the man from his work because a strong authorial voice is threaded through it.
The current collection includes a foreword from his daughter Catherine Heaney, who describes choosing the poems as a poignant process, and you can well believe it. It begins with ‘Digging’ in which he commits himself to poetry and ends with ‘In Time’, dedicated to his granddaughter Síofra. It’s dated August 18, 2013 — 12 days later he was dead. In the poem, he is helping the tiny, determined girl to walk, recognising that he won’t live to see her stride out as grown woman — yet he can picture it. “I saw you years from now/(More years than I’ll be allowed)…”
By his death, aged 74, he had sent an electrical charge through the poetry world. If you pick up this book, you will hear the words of a master sing inside your head.
Also worth visiting is ‘Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again’ — a National Library of Ireland exhibition at the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre in Dublin’s College Green (admission free) — with original manuscripts, letters, diary entries, photographs and notebooks on show.
Here, his word-weaving, dream-casting, imagination-stirring voice lives on. As it does in the work itself.
100 Poems Seamus Heaney