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Anthony Hurford offers the first of a series of blogs responding to Seamus Heaney’s poetry / 9 October 2013

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet, dramatist and critic. He died at the end of last August which has brought forth many reminiscences in the media about him and admiration for his poetry.

He was born in Northern Ireland and his early childhood on a farm called Mossbawn is a vital element to his poetry. He lived through The Troubles and was clear on his stance as an Irish Catholic.

Heaney was well recognised in his lifetime. There is a list of awards and prizes he received on his Wikipedia entry, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. For five years he was also Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

I began making these short reviews in my online reading journal when I started to read Heaney this summer. This may account for some of their tone. In many ways I do not offer them as some sort of comprehensive review – I only attempt to capture the main part of my reaction to what I read there. I intend to work my way through all of Heaney’s poetry, it has been fascinating and inspiring so far…

His first collection Death of a Naturalist was such a high standard to set. A partial reread for me. I did try it once in my twenties and I’m ashamed to say I did not ‘get it’ like I did this time. My reaction was a bit of a ‘so what’ for example to the poem ‘Digging’, a poem which reflects on his own writing process. The reason I love it now is something I had just as much access to then really, except its validation was being snuffed out. A more prosaic sense seemed to govern me then of what it says, but now it’s how it says it. The quality is in the feel.

And having read it I must say I had had several days of Seamus envy, or would that be Heaney envy – there is something I read from this book of a young life with lessons well learned but still able to step out of that and apply them to personal life and lessons and creative originality. I suppose indirectly I have a sadness for my own sidetracks at such an age that left me oblivious to what I could see and feel in front of my face, if I had just realised that I already knew what was important.

Another aspect of the envy is to do with his clarity, thanks to those lessons and also in his application. I’m embracing form and meter more at present, have been doing so for some time. Heaney turns out poem after poem here that are lessons to me, lessons of the highest sort that go beyond the technique to dance with originality.

Something I picked up strongly from Death of a Naturalist was his emotional maturity or maybe even his own seeking for it, or acceptance of it. In the poem ‘Twice shy’ he speaks of a fledgling romance (with the woman who became his future wife). These lines about emotional maturity in relationship struck me:

“ . . .
A vacuum of need
Collapsed each hunting heart
But tremulously we held
As hawk and prey apart,
Preserved classic decorum,
Deployed our talk with art.

Our juvenilia
Had taught us both to wait,
Not to publish feeling
And regret it all too late –
Mushroom loves already
Had puffed and burst in hate.

So, chary and excited
As a thrush linked on a hawk,
We thrilled to the March twilight
With nervous childish talk:
Still waters running deep
Along the embankment walk.“

The middle verse clearly speaks to me, from a writer publishing his first collection, a comment on juvenilia and the benefit of guarding feelings that may otherwise gush and somehow lose their meaning, of waiting. However it is in the context of the verses before and after, as he then uses it as a metaphor for this relationship.

It hits me in relation to writing especially as I am working towards publishing a pamphlet, having not published except through the internet. After experimenting with writing in meter in the last year so I find myself drawn to embracing form, with more appreciation of classicism and perhaps of refining that first gush.

This is a big step for me, though in many ways not new to me. For all my poor Latin at school I did learn quite a bit about meter. Yet I was woefully unpracticed at it and it was not part of how I started to write – and I still very much value that creative spark that does not need to be formalised (and also want to be careful I do not formalise myself into loss of originality maybe, or art perhaps). So it’s a surprise to me to be so open to it now – and embracing what it may give me, a coastline to the sea of creativity.

I’m now going to work through Heaney in order of publication I hope. I’ve already reread much of this collection again and will do so many times I am sure. It is full of wonderful poems that yes invite learning, but more importantly step beyond that into a dialogue with life, a sharing of life, of creativity, of pain and of happier times and any envy I felt has dissipated, it calls me to focus though, on what is important to me and what he showed is possible"

Heaney, Seamus (2009-02-19). Death of a Naturalist, Faber and Faber.
The Kindle Edition is available on Amazon for £5.39

Keywords: growing up,meter,poetry