I spend a lot of time reading, writing, and ranting about poetry. Sometimes I even get paid for it. As a result, I have read a lot of different poets and have varied opinions on a large range of poetic styles, themes, and structures. Some of these haven’t even resulted in bloodshed.
This will be a series of “Poets and What They’re Good For” posts. The first poet I’ll look at is 20th-21st century Irish man, Seamus Heaney.
Things that Heaney likes: Ireland, Irish history, bogs, people preserved in bogs, plants, ancient animals.
Thing that Heaney dislikes: violence in Ireland, conquests, people who don’t like Ireland. Also not mad keen on Britain’s history with Ireland, to put it lightly.
Things that are cool about Heaney’s poetry: He uses simple, direct language and traditional poetry styles. He writes about human sacrifices who were preserved in Ireland’s ancient peat bogs. He writes about how he has changed as a person, and has a good sense of humour about it. He writes about ominous futures due to early violence. He can give you shivers.
Some good poems: Seamus Heaney is known for his “bog” poems, so I have put an example of two of these here: one looks at Irish history, “Bogland”, and one looks at the “The Tollund Man”, a body preserved in the bog. He is also good at expressing his decision to become a poet and how this changed his life. Two great poems that look at this are “Digging”, looking at the history of his family and how his decision to become a poet interacts with this, and “Personal Helicon”, which addresses how Heaney’s persona sees poetry writing. Enjoy!
For T.P. Flanagan
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening –
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Is wooed into the cyclop’s eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.
They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter
Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They’ll never dig coal here,
Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.
The Tollund Man
Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,
Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,
She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,
Trove of the turfcutters’
How his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.
I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate
The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Laid out in the farmyards,
Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.
Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names
Tollund, Grabaulle, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat men rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging, I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bridge edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
For Michael Longley
As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.
A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.
Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
All poetry has been quoted from Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1966-1987. Hope that you enjoyed these!