Poetry Friday has had some occasion to acknowledge the passing of great poets (Jack McCarthy earlier this year, for instance, and Jack Gilbert last year), but Seamus Heaney‘s death this morning is probably the most widely-observed passing of a poet in years, and so must give us a little pause to consider the great man. He was called by many the greatest Irish poet since W. B. Yeats (hence this post’s title, which is of course a nearly-accurate quotation of W. H. Auden‘s poem in praise of Yeats upon his death), and some obituaries called him the greatest living poet. The New York times called him Ireland’s “poet of soil and strife”. He won almost every award a poet can win, up to and including the Nobel Prize. At one point, he simultaneously held professorships at Oxford and Harvard—there may be other examples of that, but they must be very few, and personally I can’t think of anyone who has been so honored.
Heaney may be best familiar to non-obsessive fans of poetry for his translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, which is by far the best translation of it I’ve read and is still, as far as I can tell, a sort of “gold standard”. Both it and all the poems of his I’ve ever read reveal his great strength, and part of what made him great—he was a man very connected to the sort of people who work hard, physical jobs and who are therefore well-grounded in the earth. Whether it’s the solid quality of the narrative in Beowulf or one of his most famous poems, in which he compares his work as a poet to the “Digging” his grandfather did in the sod, you never quite forget that Heaney was in touch with the side of human affairs that feels somehow more “real”—the plow turning up the earth, the crackling sounds of a winter’s fire and someone hand-crafting something in wood by its light, etc. He reminds me in some ways of Frost, really—the same careful attention to sound and rhythm, the same consistency of voice, and not just any voice, but a plain-spoken voice that sounds wise by experience. He’ll be missed.
So, to honor his going, here’s one of the first Seamus Heaney poems I ever read, and one that still sings for me: “Blackberry-Picking”
“Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”
Heaney captures another vivid sensory experience, and one I can identify with—I still remember vividly strapping on that metal Folger’s can (strung round my neck by twine) and trotting down to the blueberry patch next to the lake at my grandparents’ house, filling can after can with sweet blueberries on Monday afternoons in August. We picked blackberries too, sometimes, from the vines that grew where my grandfather wished they wouldn’t, and Heaney sets the scene just right—this late week in August, the feeling in the air of too much sun and rain all at once, the berries just as full as the air. The story he tells is so simple, almost childish in a way—the first sweet berry leading to a frenzied rush for berries, grabbing them all, more than can be kept. I do love the way he captures all sorts of sensory experiences: not just the taste of the berries but the scratch of the vines, the way the grass discolors his boots. I remember the look of my hands covered in tiny prick-marks, just like his, and “peppered” is just the right word for the appearance, though I’d have never come to it myself. I think that’s part of his gift, saying simple things about familiar activities that are both unexpected but exactly right, so much so we might not even notice if we didn’t slow down.
This attention goes to sounds, too—“trekked and picked” is not just a right description of what they’re doing, but if you say it aloud it sounds just like what I remember of those long afternoons, each berry plunking into the side or bottom of the metal can with a sort of hollow thunk that promises ripe, tasty fruit at the end of the day’s picking. And of course the sounds are present in that consistent rhyme scheme—unlike most modern poems, he’s giving us a never-ending stream of rhyming couplets, and unlike most poems that are endless streams of rhyming couplets, it sounds neither simple-minded nor like a birthday card. You almost never feel him strain for the rhyme or fiddle with the structure to make it come out right: it’s just the way it should be, and the rhyme seems so understated as to be almost accidental (although of course it must have been planned carefully).
The poem is, in one sense, entirely about blackberry-picking. We get no larger context, no identity of those engaged in picking, no allusion to a wider world of emotions or concerns. And yet of course it’s about so many other things, isn’t it? The rush of delight that turns to desire, the passion that becomes greed, the inevitable disappointment. The sombre final realization that, to borrow from Robert Frost, “nothing gold can stay”—anything that can mature into loveliness will continue to alter the way all perishable things do. It’s the same with blackberries and poets—the Nature that lets them flower into something truly satisfying, even deeply fulfilling, will ultimately take them from us, and when that day comes we let go. Even if we, like Seamus, feel like crying as we do.
So farewell, Irish bard. I don’t know that I should wish for you to “rest in peace”, Seamus—you were a bit of a rabble-rouser, when you were amongst us. Rest in joy, then, and we’ll be grateful for all you leave behind.