My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, 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.
– Extract from Digging, by Seamus Heaney, from Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber, 1966)
The leaves on our damson trees are turning yellow; many have fallen already. White butterflies, like wind-blown petals trying to re-attach themselves to the desiccated whiteness of our buddleia, gather to its heady scent, richer than ever on the weight of September air. Beneath the warm sunshine, there is a whisper of cold – small gusts around my feet in grass grown lush after summer’s thirst.
And Seamus Heaney now lives on in words. Immediate as the heady scent that beguiles the butterflies, the words he leaves behind reach my senses – and hit my synapses. They surprise with truth. Dig deep, like Seamus’s pen, to turn over and expose to the air peaty layers of being; layers formed by years – and by words and poems fermenting in the soil.
Get an old book down from the shelf…
…and I’m soon digging up old strata of self and memory – turning over Seamus’s poems, and the times to which they first belonged in my life. And now, I also find that new layers have silted over the old, mixing to make a richer, though sometimes sadder, loam in which to reveal the bog body of accumulated life.
Back in the 1980s, Neil Corcoran, author of another reopened book from my shelves:
was one of my lecturers at university. I remember sitting in the lecture theatre, elbow to elbow with a hundred or so other eager souls, listening to how he had met Seamus Heaney. I remember it striking me how, as an academic caught in the fascination of research into contemporary literature, you might have within your reach the intriguing possibility of meeting your subject of study; a possibility that could, perhaps, add very immediate open doors to insight – or maybe keep them guarded by the constraints of, as yet, unfolded time. I remember thinking, “He’s met Seamus Heaney. He’s actually met Seamus Heaney!” He has shared thoughts with the poet about the very poem on the page in front me, its lines now surrounded by a crazy halo of pencil-scrawl annotation, my handwriting agitated by language-love and discovery.
And Heaney’s poems are poems to love, to add to the layers of self – to fold into that peaty mix filled with half-buried scents which, when the digging times come, we unearth and release; gazing into the slow burn of accumulated experience and fathoming, illuminating where we are now.
The first poem of Seamus Heaney’s I ever read was Blackberry-Picking, from his collection, Death of a Naturalist. With the blackberries fattening on our hedge, and the season of Keats’s ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ upon us, it seems apt to quote Blackberry-Picking here in remembrance of its author. I can recall that first reading, sitting in one of my earliest tutorials at university. Autumn sunlight, lazy in the slant of its highest hour, leant heavy and insistent against Victorian sash windows; squashing us into a shaded corner of the rug-softened room, pigeons tapping at the glass to be fed. Heaney’s words were passed around between us – and something ripened, like those ‘glossy’ blackberries, inside my head. I remember it as a discovery. A blackberry picking of words. A gathering of a new understanding into my life.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
By Seamus Heaney, from Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber, 1966)
Also powerfully apt for this time of year and of remembering, is Heaney’s poem, Postscript. I heard the wonderful Edna O’Brien reciting this on Radio 4’s recent Front Row tribute to the Nobel laureate – she said it was her favourite Heaney poem. I think it has become one of my most favourites too:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
By Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level (Faber and Faber, 1996)
Seamus Heaney was one of those people whose death filled me with a sense of personal, as well as collective, loss. He was one of those greats whose contributions are like the propelling waves and clarifying sunlight on the literary ocean. On a personal level, those waves and sunlight feel like a connection to a never-ending voyage – compass points to follow, winds to capture in your sails, and glimpses of places where an anchor can reach down into depthless, and yet secure, moments of pause.
In his Nobel Lecture in 1995, Heaney spoke of how:
‘…poetry can make an order….where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference….I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.’
And he shone a light on:
‘….poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.’
When I heard the news of his death, I was already heavy with the sadness of life’s cruel turns for one of the people I love most dearly – and Seamus’s passing added another sad acceptance to the fold of what is, and what will be. I never met him in person – and yet I have met him many times in his poems. And those poems have touched my life – they have helped, and still are helping, me to ‘grow up to that which [ I ] stored up as [ I ] grew.’
On a personal level, many more layers, I hope, will continue to form in my life – there are certainly many still to dig! To our collective cultural soil, other people, other generations, will add countless layers upon layers. And, within all that mix, Seamus’s poetry will live on, persuading ‘that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it,’ – releasing crucial scents into times and lives beyond personal memory; into that timeless sense of personal knowing that buffets us softly, leaves us ‘neither here nor there’ and blows the heart open.