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
- 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.