seventeen: Seamus Heaney, Electric Light

Another late post. At number 18 (though it’s only the seventeenth poet, hence the number of the post)of my proposed 52, am I running out of steam? I’m enjoying reading the poetry as much as I was, but I think I am finding that I’m not sure I have anything terribly interesting/useful to say.

Perhaps this week/last week’s delay is down to simple fear – fear of trying to write something meaningful about (probably) Great Britain’s most celebrated living poet – Seamus Heaney. I remember my poetry tutor, Olivia Byard, saying that of today’s contemporary poets, Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney are the two who will undoubtedly still be read in a hundred years’ time. Academic, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995… where do you start? Perhaps I’ll brush it all aside in favour of this lovely glimpse into the poet’s writing space, and remember that he’s still human.

Like Duffy, Heaney is one of those poets you think you know just by virtue of their ubiquity. Aside from a few anthologised poems, though, this was my first real encounter with him. And like a lot of the poets I’ve recently been reading, it felt like I needed a gloss, to make sense of all the Irish and classical references. Happily though this piqued my curiosity rather than made the poems impenetrable (mostly, anyway).

I do like the way that Heaney is dense, but in a solid, compact sort of way rather than a showy, embellished way. I also love his often playful, aural way of writing:

… on air
That is water, on carpets of Bann stream, on hold
In the everything flows and steady go of the world. (‘Perch’)

Although I wish I’d taken the time to follow up all the references I didn’t follow, what I really warmed to about Heaney (and in this he reminded me of R.S. Thomas) is the humanity and the sense of place with which he infuses his poems. Are the two linked? A sense of place, the specifics of where you live, seem to me to be a very human way of writing, anyway. Place names feature in many of the poem’s titles, and are revisited in other poems: Toomebridge, the Bann Valley, Montana, Ballynahinch Lake, Glanmore…

My three knock-out favourites were ‘Perch’, ‘Lupins’ and ‘The Clothes Shrine’, and I find it hard to choose between the last two, but here’s ‘Lupins’:

They stood. And stood for something. Just by standing.
In waiting. Unavailable. But there
For sure. Sure and unbending.
Rose-fingered dawn’s and navy midnight’s flower.

Seed packets to begin with, pink and azure,
Sifting lightness and small jittery promise:
Lupin spires, erotics of the future,
Lip-brush of the blue and earth’s deep purchase.

O pastel turrets, pods and tapering stalks
That stood their ground for all our summer wending
And even when they blanched would never balk.
And none of this surpassed our understanding.

Electric Light, Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber, 2001)

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