Can someone tell me how have I managed to miss Seamus Heaney for so long? Why didn’t I make the effort to read his poetry years ago? Now I have discovered him I can look forward to exploring – and enjoying -the rest of his work at a leisurely pace, and find out a little more about him.
Actually, if I give the impression that I’ve never read anything by Heaney that’s not strictly true, because earlier this year I studied The Burial at Thebes (based on Sophocles’ Antigone) as part of an OU course, and we looked at Heaney’s notes on how he created the play, which is informed by his own Irish heritage. At the time I thought ‘I must read more of his work’, but moved on to something else.
Then a friend sent me a copy of In Memoriam MKH, 1911-1984, from Clearances, after I told her how my non-Catholic mother attended a convent school evacuated to her home town, where she attended mass rather than peel potatoes, which reminded my friend of the lines in the poem:
“When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.”
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.”
Then I stumbled across the Ireland Reading Challenge organised by Carrie K at http://booksandmovies.colvilleblogger.com, and there seemed to be a certain synchronicity in the course of events so, since synchronicity is about coincidence and links, I headed to the library and borrowed a copy of Human Chain – after all, a chain is a series of links. I’ve been reading it slowly, a poem a day, savouring every moment.
Like so many Irish writers Heaney is passionate about words and chooses his with care. For me even the title of this volume has layers of meaning – it references the twisted chains of DNA that make us human and connect us to our past, not just our immediate forebears but also our distant ancestors. Then there are the chains that bind people together; the shared relationships and experiences between husband and wife, parent and child, child and their child, friend and friend. And there’s the chain of events which takes us from past to present to future on the journey from life to death.
Additionally, there’s a kind of link, or progression, with the poems themselves, from Had I not been awake with it ‘wind that rose and whirled until the roof Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore’ through to A Kite for Aibhín where ‘The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall’. Like the kite, Heaney is himself. He knows himself, and is able to accept life for what it is, standing a little apart as he looks back from where he is now, with love and sorrow, but no regrets.
Here are his personal memories about the journey through life. In Album we see a heartrending image of his frail father’s final days, his own feeling of inadequacy, his inability to show his love, and how ‘It took a grandson to do it properly’.
His parents are there again in Uncoupled, his mother, carrying the weighty firebox, walking to the ashpit, while his father, ashplant in one hand, is ‘Waving and calling something I cannot hear’ and ‘…his eyes leave mine and I know The pain of loss before I know the term’. The repetition of the word ash – such a simple word – echoes the ritual of the funeral service, so we are aware that his parents are dead, and share his grief.
But the poems aren’t all about death. Past and present intermingle with birth, marriage, and descriptions of life in the rural County Londonderry of Heaney’s childhood. He himself has said many of the poems are shaped by Virgil’s Aeneid and Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld. Heaney is a very learned and erudite poet, but he’s very accessible because alongside the classical allusions and the references to Irish myth, culture and history, are observations of the commonplace things of life, all couched in the rhythms and language of ordinary speech set in older poetic forms. His love of words and his joy in language shine through – his poems sing with a life of their own, and his imagery is startling, but always apt, like In the Attic, with its boy ‘Shipshaped in the crow’s nest of a life’ now grown old and ‘ghost-footed’, which is a personal favourite.
I also loved Hermit Songs and its exploration of the writer’s craft, linking the 21st century Heaney back to the scribes of old who left us beautiful, miraculous works, like the Book of Kells, and A Herbal, after Guillevic’s ‘Herbier de Bretagne’, with its ‘elsewhere world’ , looking at life, death and self-discovery through nature. “I had my existence. I was there. Me in place, and the place in me,” says Heaney, and it’s true, for he is of Ireland, just as WB Yeats was, held in thrall to the land, its heritage and its people as surely as if he were linked with an iron chain.