Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

Seamus Heaney who died yesterday was regarded by many as the finest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats which is some accolade, or burden, when you consider the vast body of work that Yeats left us.

The Spirit Level was published in 1996, a year after Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature, and is a masterful collection of the poets work. It shows the breadth of subjects he wrote about and also the different styles of poetry he could write in. It's no exaggeration to say that contained within the slim volume, some 69 pages, are poems that take you to magical places, places where his mother is flirted with by the coalman, places where the sofa in the living room becomes the focus for children's imagination, places where the blood on a bricklayer's knuckles are compared with  the colour of the damson stain seeping from the bricklayer's packed lunch.

My favourite, and this like any list of favourites can change on an hourly basis, is called Mint.

It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.
But, to be fair, it also spelled promise
And newness in the back yard of our life
As if something callow yet tenacious
Sauntered in green alleys and grew rife.

The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday
Mornings when the mint was cut and loved:
My last things will be first things slipping from me.
Yet let all things go free that have survived.

Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against
Because we’d failed them by our disregard.

It's wonderfully evocative, a Proustian moment that takes me back to Sunday lunchtimes in the late 1960's early 1970's, Two-Way Family Favourites, my Mum's Tom Jones albums on the radiogram that was so big you could almost fall into it and then Brian Moore and The Big Match.


Span Ows said...

Well I used to read a lot of poetry and I must say (without a shadow of shame) that I have never read a single poem of his. I was quite surprised in fact when I found out how famous he was...

Paul said...

It's funny with poetry because you can't absorb it subconsciously like a lot of other forms of art. You can be familiar with a piece of music without knowing the artist or even a film clip without knowing the film off by heart but you do need to concentrate to enjoy poetry.

I got into Heaney when I was doing a lot more writing than I do now and somebody suggested that as I liked WB Yeats I would like Heaney.

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