Seamus Heaney (b. 1939, d. 2013) was a poet, playwright, translator and lecturer, and the recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was the author of over 20 volumes of poetry and criticism, and edited several widely used anthologies. Anthony Hurford reflects on the poets third collection Wintering Out, which explores the poets relationship to the land.
I read this book differently, I put it down eighty percent through, completing weeks later. I’m grateful it soaked in slow. But I left my writing late, had to refresh myself before drafting this. Mr. Heaney, as ever, deserves consideration, this collection is so fresh.
It is in two parts although I focus on part one, as it has a more obvious theme: it takes us back to a world, I hesitate to say Heaneyland as it's not an exclusive world but inclusive. It takes us back slowly to a world, to fine detail in that world, to remembering how to mix ourselves with the world and have it and us open to each other, it takes us back to language and makes that fresh (I read in Stepping Stones how he replied when asked if he saw himself as one who works 'from words' or 'towards them' (a distinction of Dylan Thomas') that he saw himself as doing both).
He speaks for the land and yet he allows it to speak and he relates to and with it. Having read his first two collections this felt like a deepening, a new aspect of his journey with the land of his early childhood. It reminded me of an idea I had reading Tolstoy, his Confession, how I was impressed by how much of Tolstoy’s journey was one of becoming more what he already was, making that more real. However, I’m not suggesting a similar life-crisis for Mr. Heaney.
A world pours forth in the poems of the first part - the language, the reality, the passing of it. Something of the feel of this section is of someone that appreciates the qualities of a world very well and is generous enough to share that with strangers, if they’ll listen.
Sometimes poetry reminds me of my own process of valuing the world (not financially), of attending and concluding and feeling and speaking and dreaming with it, the quality of being. This section is generous in this. But it's not at all warmth and pastoral idyll, we have the view of the 'Servant Boy', the changing world of 'The Last Mummer', a reality in 'The Other Side' and the "tang of possibility" from the past in 'Linen Town'. Throughout this his tenderness and common humanity. And openings to feelings that the fast world bypasses to get to the oh so important places it gets to.
Two things leap out to me - his relationship to the land and the quality of language. This may be cheating, but, a flavour of him:
"I stepped it, perch by perch.
Unbraiding rushes and grass
I opened my right-of-way
through old-bottoms and sowed-out ground
and gathered stones off the ploughing
to raise a small cairn.
Cleaned out the drains, faced the hedges
and often got up at dawn
to walk the outlying fields.
I composed habits for those acres
so that my last look would be
neither gluttonous nor starved.
I was ready to go anywhere.
. . . "
from 'Gifts of Rain':
" . . .
The tawny guttural water
spells itself: Moyola
is its own score and consort,
bedding the locale
in the utterance,
reed music, an old chanter
breathing its mists
through vowels and history.
A swollen river,
a mating call of sound . . . "
I said the land spoke and if in doubt about a complex relationship to the land read 'Oracle'. As to language – again I wonder if he was revaluing and embracing what he felt. He looks at Irish words but also at the flavour of words in another's mouth to the subject's ear, in 'The Wool Trade' which begins with a quote from one Stephen Dedalus. A reminder of the living quality of language, of how we value it ourselves perhaps and how that may be heard in our words, and I think throughout seen in his written word making world and words fresh.
In section one we meet 'The Tollund Man'. Perhaps revaluing is also present as he contemplates "old man-killing parishes". I neglect a huge aspect of his work in not saying more.
The second section has poems I like very much, on weddings and summer homes, family life. A string of poems about women I found powerful. I loved the poems 'Good-Night' with its observation, 'May' and 'Dawn' but it is the poems of the first half that opened up a world for me that I especially remember, that seem together somehow, unified by a vision of his vision.