How to Read Seamus Heaney (Part 1)

By

When it comes to talking about poetry, there is often an invisible line that can prove difficult to navigate. On the one hand, in any mixed group of people, there will be those who are familiar with, and proficient in, how to approach a poem or a poet. Such people have found their own point of entry with poetic work, and need very little encouragement or instruction on “how to read.” On the other hand (and this may be the more sizable group), there are the uninitiated and slightly intimidated. They love words, they love poetic work, they have treasured a small bouquet of favourite pieces, but they live with a sense of alienation and inferiority about their approach. Aside from familiar lines, the idea of “studying” a poet sounds like a fearful enterprise, something which should only occupy those in the world of undergraduates or postgraduates.

Anyone seeking to provide information or inspiration about poetry runs the risk of patronising the first group of people, or of marginalising the second. In this short series of posts, I have taken upon myself to strike something of this balance, but with a definite leaning towards encouragement of those suffering from a literary inferiority complex. My chosen poet is Seamus Heaney, partly because I have read his poetry since my early teens and am familiar with most of his work, and partly because he makes a superb case study. A few nudges and nods with regard to Heaney’s writing and biography can yield a rich harvest for those concerned to read him for themselves. To encounter his work on its own terms is a life-changing experience.

In this post I want to suggest some guidelines for approaching and appreciating Heaney’s work, providing a basic tool kit for digging into his poetry. In subsequent posts I will highlight some themes and preoccupations which appear throughout his written output, and will provide some gentle and subtle pointers as to why these might be profitable areas for Christians, interested in the arts, to explore.

Start at the beginning

One of the dilemmas of becoming familiar with a poet’s work is the question of where to begin. A well-edited “selected” or “collected” works rarely gives a guideline about the sweet spot where the heart and soul of the poet can be located. Beginning with the later work of a poet can be attractive as the cream of their creative endeavours may seem to lie there, but we could be depriving ourselves of key connections and resonances from their earlier work. Starting too early might seem like the most obvious option in mere evolutionary terms, but occasionally early poetry (or “juvenilia”) is a pale reflection of the power a mature poet is capable of. The answer to this riddle often depends on the temperament and slant of the poet themself.

Seamus Heaney’s early work is the best place to begin, particularly his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. Here Heaney is at his most transparent, his most personally confessional, and many of the keynotes he strikes in this work are sustained right across his later collections. Death of a Naturalist embodies much of what is best about Heaney’s poetry—lyrical skill, a slow savouring of words and sounds, and a locality of subject matter which gives way to universal human themes. These poems are riddled with the incidental, but they are charged with atomic poetic power in which the yard and the field, the schoolhouse and the flax dam, all provide a gateway into Heaney’s emotional life, and our own. This is a much more sound way of reading Heaney than jumping too quickly to his Selected Poems. There is a consistency and coherence in Death of Naturalist which is reliant upon hearing all of the poems in co-ordination with one another. The collation of these poems is almost as important as their original creation.

Assume the ordinary

One of the risks run by readers of poetry is that of forgetting the real world from which poems emerge and with which they engage. This is a particular problem for those who wish to appreciate Irish poetry. Perhaps because of the Celtic Twilight which the young W. B. Yeats conjured, there can be a temptation to look for a false significance in poetry. This means that the reader is so primed for a “hidden,” “deeper,” or “legendary” meaning that they allow the concrete details of the poet’s work to pass them by. This is a kind of allegorical reading which assumes that any “second level” of meaning on the poet’s part must be of primary concern.

His style and