I was very sad to read of the passing of Seamus Heaney this evening.
I first encountered Heaney as an English Literature A Level student in 1987, being introduced to the novel concept of studying a writer who was still alive. I loved North.
Then, on going up to college, on my first evening in the bar there was an awed atmosphere as Seamus Heaney himself stood at it, downing pints whilst brave dons joined him for a drink or two. After a fair while, I summoned up the courage to approach him and said I hoped I wasn't commiting some kind of heresy by speaking to him. Oh no, he said, why would it be a heresy? I told him that he was one of two writers I had really enjoyed at A Level. Who was the other, he asked. I replied that it was Chaucer. Ah well, it sounds like I'm in good company, he said. I still can't believe I actually met and spoke to one of my A Level authors.
I met Heaney a few weeks later and he remembered me.
Then years later, at the Edinburgh Book Festival I wanted to get a book signed and dedicated. Alas, he was not doing dedications - one book only, one signature. I mentioned that I had met him years earlier and he had spoken to me - would he write a dedication in the book. Oh no, he said. No dedications, them's the rules, he said loudly as he wrote me a dedication.
The world was brighter for Seamus Heaney's presence. He was a gentlemen and a scholar, but also very down to earth.
"This is my pen, I'll dig with it"
Okay, then. Here we go with some new poems.
I've chosen two by Seamus Heaney, who is a great favourite of mine. One of the things I love about Heaney's poetry is that certainly in the early days you can track very clearly his progression as a poet - his uncertainty over this 'vocation' and how being a poet relates to his family and national identity. It's a painful and confusing journey, but you can track the incremental steps he takes towards poetic maturity.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as 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 bright 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 could 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, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mold, 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 T. P. Flanagan
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening--
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Is wooed into the cyclops' 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.
So I've chosen one of the earliest, 'Digging', which you may well have come across before, as a poem that reveals much of the angst he feels in pursuing a less physical path than was traditional in his family. This can then be compared with 'Bogland', where he has begun to find greater confidence in his poetic calling.
I've chosen these in particular because the conclusion of 'Digging' connects with the digging that goes on in the Irish bogs and the ancient things that are found there. It's the symbolic resonance that Heaney finds in the Irish earth that I find fascinating - his way of connecting with identity. I like the first poem for its sensitive exploration of what becoming a poet means to him and the second for its liberating enjoyment in exploring a symbol throughout the entire length of the poem.
Anyway, I'd better say no more: I hope that gives you a few lines to think along.
(P.S. Flanagan was a painter and art teacher. Heaney watched him make some preparatory drawings for a series of studies of bogland.)