I don’t read much poetry, though I tend to have an emotional rather than a reasoned reaction to it. I like poetry where the poet has seemed to consider his or her words carefully, hesitated for a long time over the right word or phrase or word order. For a long time I loathed the works of Ted Hughes, having been made to study his gloomiest poems at school, and it was only later in life that I realised with what devastating precision he used words, and that many of his poems were not grim, dour and unrelentingly miserable as I’d thought, but often blackly humorous or celebratory. John Donne’s poetry is another favourite, though I don’t get all the allusions: I love the way it sounds. Although I like rhyme and metre, that’s not the first thing I look for in a poem, and sometimes never.
I think I discovered Heaney’s poetry when I was at university (reading geology). St Andrews is a small place, and the Younger Hall, where all major university events and concerts take place, is not the largest venue in the world, seating a maximum of one thousand people. Still, when Seamus Heaney came to speak there, to read some of his poetry, the place was packed. I don’t recall which poems he read, but I was impressed.
District and Circle is Heaney’s twelfth collection of poetry and includes a number of translations (Rilke, Cavafy, Ó Súilleabháin) and prose poems (I’m not sure what the difference is between a prose poem and, well, a piece of prose). The poems seem to be of three types: one, considering the remembered things from Heaney’s rural childhood in County Derry, often using dialect words such as seggans or snedding; the second considering the anxieties and changes of the modern world; and the third addressing other poets (all appearing to be fellow Nobel prize winners), or Heaney’s reactions to poems by Auden, or Wordsworth, or Horace.
I’m not sure why this, from The Blackbird of Glanmore, affects me:
The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel
In front of my house of life.
Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,
In the ivy when I leave.
I do like Heaney’s remembrances of his rural childhood, and the pleasure in the natural world which comes across in his works. There’s a certain solidity to these works, a certain sort of planting the feet and balancing; a centred sort of feel. I don’t think it’s an accident that several of the poems refer to defences – the Roman testudo, for example – as though trying to armour these recollections and make them safe. Those directly addressing the modern world seem less certain, addressing the lit streets where the Tollund Man is out of place, or descending into the underground.
I don’t know any of Rilke’s or Cavafy’s poems so don’t know what Heaney’s translations are like – I did like his version of Beowulf, but then I don’t know that poem in its original language, either – but they seem to me to be poetic works in their own right, not merely translations.
Heaney’s poetry seems to me to address the real world, often a domestic one, and there’s humanity and love in his poems that appeal to me.