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How to Read Seamus Heaney (Part 1)

When it comes to talking about poetry, there is often an invisible line that can prove difficult to navigate. On the one hand, in any mixed group of people, there will be those who are familiar with, and proficient in, how to approach a poem or a poet. Such people have found their own point of entry with poetic work, and need very little encouragement or instruction on “how to read.” On the other hand (and this may be the more sizable group), there are the uninitiated and slightly intimidated. They love words, they love poetic work, they have treasured a small bouquet of favourite pieces, but they live with a sense of alienation and inferiority about their approach. Aside from familiar lines, the idea of “studying” a poet sounds like a fearful enterprise, something which should only occupy those in the world of undergraduates or postgraduates.

Anyone seeking to provide information or inspiration about poetry runs the risk of patronising the first group of people, or of marginalising the second. In this short series of posts, I have taken upon myself to strike something of this balance, but with a definite leaning towards encouragement of those suffering from a literary inferiority complex. My chosen poet is Seamus Heaney, partly because I have read his poetry since my early teens and am familiar with most of his work, and partly because he makes a superb case study. A few nudges and nods with regard to Heaney’s writing and biography can yield a rich harvest for those concerned to read him for themselves. To encounter his work on its own terms is a life-changing experience.

In this post I want to suggest some guidelines for approaching and appreciating Heaney’s work, providing a basic tool kit for digging into his poetry. In subsequent posts I will highlight some themes and preoccupations which appear throughout his written output, and will provide some gentle and subtle pointers as to why these might be profitable areas for Christians, interested in the arts, to explore.

Start at the beginning

One of the dilemmas of becoming familiar with a poet’s work is the question of where to begin. A well-edited “selected” or “collected” works rarely gives a guideline about the sweet spot where the heart and soul of the poet can be located. Beginning with the later work of a poet can be attractive as the cream of their creative endeavours may seem to lie there, but we could be depriving ourselves of key connections and resonances from their earlier work. Starting too early might seem like the most obvious option in mere evolutionary terms, but occasionally early poetry (or “juvenilia”) is a pale reflection of the power a mature poet is capable of. The answer to this riddle often depends on the temperament and slant of the poet themself.

Seamus Heaney’s early work is the best place to begin, particularly his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. Here Heaney is at his most transparent, his most personally confessional, and many of the keynotes he strikes in this work are sustained right across his later collections. Death of a Naturalist embodies much of what is best about Heaney’s poetry—lyrical skill, a slow savouring of words and sounds, and a locality of subject matter which gives way to universal human themes. These poems are riddled with the incidental, but they are charged with atomic poetic power in which the yard and the field, the schoolhouse and the flax dam, all provide a gateway into Heaney’s emotional life, and our own. This is a much more sound way of reading Heaney than jumping too quickly to his Selected Poems. There is a consistency and coherence in Death of Naturalist which is reliant upon hearing all of the poems in co-ordination with one another. The collation of these poems is almost as important as their original creation.

Assume the ordinary

One of the risks run by readers of poetry is that of forgetting the real world from which poems emerge and with which they engage. This is a particular problem for those who wish to appreciate Irish poetry. Perhaps because of the Celtic Twilight which the young W. B. Yeats conjured, there can be a temptation to look for a false significance in poetry. This means that the reader is so primed for a “hidden,” “deeper,” or “legendary” meaning that they allow the concrete details of the poet’s work to pass them by. This is a kind of allegorical reading which assumes that any “second level” of meaning on the poet’s part must be of primary concern.

His style and demeanor were those of a neighbor speaking across the fence, and the humour of his words was most clearly betrayed by the continual sparkle in his eye. Here was a man at home in his world, and in love with the words that could capture its essence. Andrew Roycroft

Seamus Heaney helps us to escape this. One of the chief things to bear in mind with Heaney’s poetry is that he is observing and describing his own world, and that his work is concerned to convey it with accuracy, poignancy, and significance. This was driven home to me on the one occasion when I heard Heaney read his poetry in person. His wonderful translation of Beowulf was just being released, and he spent an evening in Belfast reading from it, and reflecting on the work of the poet. What emerged from that evening, more than anything else, was how profoundly ordinary Heaney was as a man. His style and demeanour were those of a neighbour speaking across the fence, and the humour of his words was most clearly betrayed by the continual sparkle in his eye. Here was a man at home in his world, and in love with the words that could capture its essence.

This is of fundamental significance for appreciating Seamus Heaney’s work. Assume that the material from which his poems spring is the ordinary matter of life in Ireland, the childhood experiences, the friends and acquaintances, the historical circumstances, the significant places and spaces. Heaney’s work advances themes from the flora and fauna of lived experience, and there is a literal earthiness and earthed-ness which demands that the reader come down to the soil before they think about scaling the heavens.

Undoubtedly this ordinary matter is charged with, and upscaled by, the big human themes with which Heaney wrestles, but the things described are not a foil for propaganda or pontification. The material of life matters in Seamus Heaney’s poetry, and is the very medium from which great ideas are effortlessly mined.

Hear Heaney himself

Some poets’ work is best read by others, but not Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s voice is one of poetic integrity and transparency, and so the most natural way to encounter his writing is by hearing him read it himself. There is no divorce between his idiom and his accent, his poetry and his personality, and to hear him read his own work is to grasp something of its weight and dimensions. In 2018 Faber and Faber released Heaney’s Collected Poems on audio CD (or in a 3 part series on Audible) in which the poet reads his entire body of work. This not only an aural treat, but a vital point of content with the poet’s tone and his texts. Having read Heaney for many years, it was only when I heard some of his poems audibly that I grasped the emphasis and the heart of what he was saying. There is a care and gravity with which each word is handled, with which emphasis is laid, and this will gain a lot of ground for the reader in terms of understanding the context and content of the poems. Hearing Heaney himself is a joy, and he is a vital travelling companion through the wonder of his own work.

In my next post I will isolate what is arguably Heaney’s most famous poem, “Digging,” and explore its preoccupations and living application for us as readers, and for those concerned with the dignity of their own creative vocation.

[Editor’s note: Andrew Roycroft is an excellent poet himself—if you’d like to become acquainted with his work, click here to read his “Grace Triptych,” written during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns.]


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