Review: Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987

Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987, Seamus Heaney. New York: The Noonday Press, 1990.

Summary: A selection of the poetry of Seamus Heaney from previously published works between 1966 and 1987.

My one previous encounter with Seamus Heaney was his rendering of Beowulf, a powerful version of this Old English heroic narrative. I’ve long wanted to explore his poetry and a while back picked up this collection, gathering a number of poems from the first half of his writing career (subsequently, an edition covering 1988 to 2013 was released).

The poems in this selection come from the following works:

  • Death of a Naturalist
  • Door in the Dark
  • Wintering Out
  • Stations
  • North
  • Field Work
  • Sweeney Astray
  • Station Island
  • The Haw Lantern

How does one summarize and review all this? One reviewer described reading Heaney as “muddled clarity.” I would agree with this assessment. Heaney demands multiple readings and this was merely my first taste. In the middle of a poem, you wonder what he is saying, and then a phrase leaps out and rivets your attention.

His work evokes the land–the bogs and trees, the fields and hedges, the broagh or riverbanks, that together create a sense of place. He captures the people–the farmers, the roof thatcher, and the Tollund Man, a mummified corpse found in one of the bogs. He remembers the dead, from Francis Ledwidge, who died in World War I to his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney (“M.K.H”) in Clearances that evoke all the memories of a loved one, the parting of death, and the awareness of our mortality.

The violence present in Northern Ireland is a frequently present backdrop to his poetry as is the imagery of Irish Catholicism from missals to masses. Much of this comes together in the last poem in this collection, The Disappearing Island:

Once we presumed to found ourselves for good

Between its blue hills and those sandless shores

Where we spent our desperate night in prayer and vigil.

Seamus Heaney, p. 261.

The collection includes selections from Sweeney Astray, Heaney’s version of the Irish poem Buile Shuibhne, the Glanmore Sonnets, and Station Island.

One should have a phone or computer handy to look up words and references that may be obscure to one. Perhaps some day, an annotated version of Heaney’s works will do this work for us. But for now, we are left to do the work for ourselves. Some will pass this up, but some of the richest readings are the ones that have required me to dig. Heaney’s works seem to me to be among these. In this we join Heaney who compared his work to that of his potato farming father:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests

I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney, “Digging,” p. 3.

2 thoughts on “Review: Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987

  1. Thank you Bob for bringing Seamus Heaney into your blog! Back in graduate school at WVU I had the pleasure to take a semester length course in Seamus Heaney from poet/professor Dr. Susan Shaw Sailer. We started with Death of a Naturalist and worked our way chronologically to The Haw Lantern, then we went to the Collected to see what poems Heaney had brought together in that book. I highly recommend this approach. We also read some of his essays (Preoccupations). Yes, we needed to figure out a few words here and there from the Gaelic language, as Heaney embraced both the Anglo Saxon and the Gaelic origins of words and the sounds from each – that brought a richness to the poetry. Taking the time to read these full books will bring a reader to the true essence of what this remarkable poet offers, and actually all his poetry can be seen in all his poetry. Right after that class, Heaney won the Nobel Prize. This is from the committee: The Nobel Prize in Literature 1995 was awarded to Seamus Heaney “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

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