I have begun to make my way through Opened Ground, which is a collection of Irish Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney's work from 1966 to 1996. Throughout the collection, there is selected poetry from each of his collections up until the time this bigger testament of his best works was released. Opened Ground was assigned for my Irish Literature class, but I felt that either way, I was bound to pick up this collection and begin reading his work. Heaney is just a magnificent poet that reflects on being an Irishman and living a life in rural Ireland. Unlike W.B. Yeats, who wrote years before him, Heaney's work is completely straightforward and not meant to be viewed as Symbolist. There is no complicated decoding that is meant to explore the background of Heaney's time and place nor is there a need for you, the reader, to believe that what is being said is supposed to represent something else. Any kind of word play in Heaney's poetry is intended to be figured out, for it is just Heaney using creative expressions.
Here are five of his poems that stick out the most in his earliest collection, released in 1966.
"Digging"- For some reason, there is a thing with me and the first poem that appears in a collection. It is most certainly not me being lazy and saying that the first thing I read is the very best part of a poetry collection, but it just turns out that way. Perhaps this is a strategy on behalf of poet in order to catch the attention as immediately as possible. "Digging" follows the speaker and how he is writing indoors and remembers his father and grandfather and the yard work in which they engaged. He mentioned how they used spades and how the speaker recalls picking potatoes with his father and carrying milk out to his grandfather. As for his instrument, the speaker uses his pen to "dig up memories." Heaney put a great concentration on making sure that the reader was able to feel the grime that the subjects felt in the poem, emphasizing the "cool hardness in our hands" (L 14), the bottled milk "corked sloppily with paper" (L 20), and "the squelch and slap of soggy peat" (L 25-26) to name a few. We can tell that this speaker does not hold as much experience with manual labor as he possesses "no spade to follow men like them" (L 28), but as time goes by, it almost seems like the escalation of time and circumstances means he is not in a dire need to engage in such labor.
"Death of a Naturalist"- The title poem in this collection is quite amusing, as it pertains to a boy and his fondness of the frogs that exist in his world. As he does so magnificently, Heaney describes the swampy environment to which the frogs inhabit and how he interferes with it, so that he can collect evidence to which he is able to study. He is inspired by what he learns in school about these frogs and what Miss Walls teaches him about them. Ultimately, he returns to some not so happy frogs, "gathered there for vengeance" (L 32). The title of the poem leaves me thinking, because "naturalism" to me describes the indifference that nature has on society. The subject is interfering with the world around him and those that are being affected are angered by this. Perhaps the boy in the poem thinks in a manner that completely opposes the fundamentals of how a Naturalist would think in that he wants to know more than what already is in his grasp. Following the ideas of what Heaney intends, the concept of a boy making his way to a pond full of frogs and examining their habitat is just quite fascinating!
"Churning Day"- I would probably say that if there was a particular poem that caught my attention more than the others in this collection, "Churning Day" would be that poem. When I was younger, I had a fascination with the act of using a churn to make butter and wondered what it was about this that had an impact on the process. I thought that there was something intriguing and as demanding as a designated chore done on a farm. Heaney reminds me otherwise of the gruel that comes with churning butter. He jumps right in by describing the debris left by the churning as "a thick crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast" (L 1) and continues by making comparisons to the product as being processed by "cud and udder" as he refers to the cow (L 4) and how it leaves the house "acrid as a sulphur mine" (L 28). In addition to leaving its mark on the house, the churning of butter leaves everyone with aching arms, blistered hands, and "cheeks and clothes [that] were splattered with flabby milk" (L 15-17). It is incredible to believe that churning butter was just as demanding, if not more demanding, than transporting limestone or manure. Heaney makes a fine argument to this particular case and I surely enjoyed reading about it!
"Follower"- "Follower" is a really heartwarming poem about the cycle of life. Much of the poem follows the subject's father and how he is such a farming expert. The subject, who is a younger boy, is really curious about what his father is doing and wants to be just like him. The father, though, is a genius in his work and it is just about impossible for the boy to figure out what he is doing and how things are done so well. All the boy was able to do was trip, fall, and yap, which almost certainly annoyed his father. As time goes by, though, things start to change. The boy grows up and becomes a man and tends to the farm. The father, who is much older at this point in time, is doing the same thing the boy did. Having tended to the farm for so many years, the father is following along as if he is a "backseat driver," showing that there is bound to be a cycle of irritation when it comes to doing what needs to be done; and while both seem to think they know what they are doing, the idea of the job getting done tends to be the most important obligation that remains at hand.
"Mid-Term Break"- "Mid-Term Break" is a saddening poem about the occurrence of premature death in Ireland. The subject is a boy that is the oldest child, who has lost his younger brother, just four years of age (he has another brother that is just a baby). We do not know this until the end of the poem, though. What we do know, though, is that the boy (who is said to be in college, but needs to rely on a ride from neighbors) is coming home to a wake and is being consoled by older men and saddened parents. As the poem progresses, we learn more and more about him and about the death of his relative. Eventually, we learn that the death was due to a fall that lead to the boy hitting his head and then are assured by the description that he was in "a four-foot box, a foot for every year" (L 22). Premature death, especially death in childhood, is always sad to read about. The way that Heaney writes about it is in the Irish tradition, capturing a segment of an unfortunate, but common part of their lifestyle.
Seamus Heaney really gives us a taste of what it means to be an Irish poet, with examples from multiple backgrounds. I am really curious to know what life is like in other countries and how their lifestyle and their environment reflects their writing. Heaney really does a great job giving me that taste and by being straightforward with what he has to say, there is no need to overthink everything he presents to me as the reader. These five poems explore what it was to grow up in his generation in Ireland and how the work was so grueling. I could feel the sod and the muck that he describes in all of its forms as he talks about their presence in those everyday tasks. Heaney's poetry is so great, because while it may make you think, the only certainty is that it is the content and the imagery that will definitely be taken away from his work. Sometimes the ability to enjoy poetry as if it is a sampling of cheese with a glass of wine is what we need. This is definitely a great place to start!
I will leave a link to the collection that I referred to and encourage you to check out on your own time. This includes Heaney's other works of poetry up until 1996:
Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney