I was sad to learn that Seamus Heaney, Irish poet & Nobel Laureate, died this morning. I first encountered the work of Heaney some six years ago in an undergrad English class entitled, “British Poetry, Lately.” The class examined recent developments in contemporary British and Irish Poetry. In the class we engaged with poets such as Eavan Boland, Kathleen Jamie, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, Tom Raworth, and, of course, Heaney—all masters of tone, language, subject matter, working with/against the long British devotion to rhyme and meter.
Poetry in the twentieth century has largely been about defamiliarization (ostranenie (остранение)), the artistic technique of persuading the audience to see familiar things in an unfamiliar or strange way, often using metaphor to help depict the mechanics of the world we inhabit. Heaney was a master of using incredibly rich and dense metaphors. He was also a master of listening. Ever the attentive poet, Seamus Heaney made use of melopoeia (charging words beyond their normal meaning, like the cadences of music) as a part of his fluidity to create his dense rhythms. In Glanmore Sonnets he stands and listens to the mysterious corporeal sensualities that surround him to cultivate words: “Words entering almost the sense of touch / Ferreting themselves out of the dark hutch — / ‘These things are not secrets but mysteries’” (II).
Yet, it was in “Digging,” a poem full of onomatopoeia and poetic excavation, and the first poem from his very first collection, The Death of a Naturalist (1966), where Heaney first displayed his poetic method:
The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
It’s been a number of years since I’ve read Heaney, and it’s unfortunate that it took his death for me to reread a couple of his well known poems, which I still remember so well from that undergrad class. He was a poet of the highest order and will be missed. His poetic cultivations and living roots charge on.
Check out Heaney reading his poem “Digging”:
Heaney, Seamus. New Selected Poems. London: Faber, 1987.