The more we understand about poetry the better we can appreciate its unique contribution to our lives. As men and women committed to learning and advancing a Biblical worldview, we must not neglect the benefits poetry can bring to our lives. Poetry has much to teach us – about the deeper significance of ordinary things, the workings of the soul, the nature of true pleasure and the meaning of delight, and the power of artful language.
Further, reading and meditating on poetry can make us better readers overall, and more acute observers of the world around us. As one whose calling is to be an interpreter of God’s Word, I shall be forever grateful for my undergraduate training and ongoing studies in poetry, for they have been of much help in the exegetical and hermeneutical work of isolating units of meaning and interpreting texts. As important as this, however, has been the value poetry has been in helping me to understand the human condition, become a more careful observer of the world, and find satisfaction in words and images. But, in order to gain the benefits poetry can afford us, we must apply ourselves to learning how poetry works, and what the work of poetry is. Poets can sometimes be our best guides in this quest for understanding, particularly when their poems lead us behind the veil of poetry’s mysteries and reveal to us the inner workings of the craft. Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel laureate, is an especially helpful and altogether willing guide in this cause. In many of his poems and all his prose works he invites us to consider the work of poetry from the inside. Heaney helps us to understand the poet’s sense of calling to this work; shows us what work a poem can do; gives us insight into the actual work of making poems; and helps us to understand how good poems work to accomplish their objective. All these poetic features are claimed by Heaney in his Redress of Poetry. The Redress of Poetry is a series of lectures given by Seamus Heaney at Oxford; in all of them, he examines poetry and how it can be strong enough to help the reader, to act as an equal force to the life lived by the reader. He looks at all kinds of poets – Dylan Thomas, Christopher Marlowe, Yeats, Wilde and Bishop – and of course talks about his own position as a Catholic from the Northern Ireland living in Dublin. In all the lectures Heaney is wonderfully informal and funny, while still solidly getting across how important and vital these writers are. The lecture on Thomas alone is a great lesson on writing and authenticity, and the last one, “Frontiers of Writing”, makes a strong case that a nation is imagined by writers first – that language, poetry, opens up possibilities in nations as well as in people. Though he knows that words can’t do everything, Heaney’s affection for writing and writers is convincing.
Heaney’s redressing of poetry is vividly imaginative, whilst being firmly rooted in reality. Seamus Heaney is described as imaginative and honest whilst enabling him to share his views on the political and social situation in Ireland at that time. Through the use of metaphors and strong imagery aided by his choice of form and structure Heaney is able to appeal to a wide range of people. The use of etymology, the study of words, furthers this.
His approach to Redress of poetry is all nostalgic as a result of Heaney’s upbringing and his family situation. Heaney says that poetry should be used to voice his feelings of insecurity after the birth of his first child. Within this section in ‘Blackberry Picking’ Heaney uses the childhood tradition of picking blackberries to express his adult view on how naively hopeful he was as a child. The poem is used as a metaphor to explain that even as an adult that a recurring delusion, where there is a perpetual consciousness that life, love and youth do not ‘keep’ but the temptation for another try is always succumbed to. Heaney’s use of metaphors in order to relate a current feeling through a childhood incident gives evidence of not only his feelings but also is able to be related to by many who feel they are unable to express their views in similar situations. Heaney is able to appeal to these readers, through showing his feelings of worthlessness and dejection after the birth of a child, through the use of poetry. Heaney’s poetry is described as being ‘rooted in reality’ because he is able to express his truthful emotions ‘I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not’ despite the social constraints of having to feel ecstatic after the birth of a child.
Poetry and emotions
Heaney’s success in showing his emotions is as a result of the strong imaginative imagery ‘our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s’. This use of strong imagery shows Heaney’s desire to create a perfect portrait of the image within his mind. Heaney uses lavish description in order to create the ‘lust for picking’. By juxtaposing this with his negative view ‘lovely canfuls smelt of rot’ he heightens the impact of his condescending adult perspective of how things never live up to our expectations. His own poetry apart from the critical work of redress of poetry asserts this fact. The poem ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ describes rebel farmers in 1798 striving to save their land in a vicious battle with English armies. Heaney uses the poem to give voice to those to whom history has denied. The use of a possessive pronoun ‘we’ shows the reader which side they are encouraged to identify with, reinforced by the lack of rhyme scheme to show their deficiency of army knowledge. The poem is inventive in portraying a scene often forgotten ‘we moved quick and sudden in our own country’. It also shows Heaney’s imagination in recreating a full picture of a scene based before his time in situations Heaney has never experienced. Heaney is able to show the reality of death in ‘they buried us without shroud or coffin’ whilst praising their spirit in dying for those in Ireland in reference to ‘Requiem’ in the title.
Poetry and politics
In each of Heaney’s poems is an underlying implication of Heaney’s political views. In ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ Heaney refers to the ‘barley grew up out of the grave’ and in doing so reflects on how little the Irish in Ulster appreciate the martyrs who died for the cause. In the poems throughout ‘Wintering Out’ Heaney embellishes this, particularly in ‘Gifts of Rain’. At first read the poem regards a simple river akin to the poem ‘Broagh’. However, in the line ‘I cock my ear / at an absence’ Heaney refers to those who have died and have worked to uniting Ireland without violence. He asks for help to go back in time to hear advice from those who have made a difference in uniting Ireland ‘Soft voices of the dead are whispering by the shore’. The use of the central imagery throughout the poem of water reflects the nature of being purged, to come out clean with a fresh beginning. Heaney’s ability to be ‘firmly rooted in reality’ is most clearly shown in each poem through his ability to connect everyday landscapes such as the ‘River Moyola’ to the political situation in Ireland.
Seamus Heaney and Irish Tradition
In the poems featured in ‘Wintering Out’ Heaney uses several examples of a tradition known in Irish poetry as dinnshenchas. Through this Heaney explores the linguistic elements and lore of a place name. In the poem ‘Anahorish’, Heaney explores the place name of where he went to school as a child. Heaney’s analysis of the name’s phonetics, ‘soft gradient / of consonant, vowel meadow’ leads him to imagine the landscape to which the name was attached. He believes the rise and fall of the word over the consonants reflects the gradient of the land, rising and falling. This is further embellished upon throughout the poem ‘Gifts of Rain. Heaney analyses the phonetic sounds of the name of the local river ‘Moyola’ , ‘the tawny guttural water, spells itself: Moyola’. The name reflects the undulating notion of the water’s movements. Heaney shows through his use of etymology his imagination in reflecting sounds with place names and imagining the histories that add to this. In connecting this with the political situation of Ireland, Heaney shows how by taking an elaborate concept behind a place name one can resolutely connect this to our lives today.
Evidence for Heaney’s ability to connect a place name and the political situation in Ireland is most identifiably showing ‘Broagh’. Heaney connects both the linguistic etymology and the political views within the poem to give an underlying message only accessible by the Irish. In taking a simple concept such as a river the poem is taken at face value to be regarding a ‘riverbank’. Heaney uses the word ‘Broagh’ and compares this to the landscape of a riverbank. However, the poem title ‘Broagh’ meaning riverbank is unable to be voiced by the English as is pronounced ‘bruach’ in Irish, ‘ended almost suddenly / like the last gh the strangers found difficult to manage’. In using words of an Irish only dialect such as ‘rigs’ and ‘docken’, Heaney isolates the English reader to unite Ireland through linguistics, “Broagh is a sound native to Ireland, common to unionist and Nationalist but unavailable to the English” (Heaney).
Poetry as calling Poetry for Seamus Heaney is his life’s calling. In “Digging”, one of his first published works, he likens his calling as a poet to the work of his father and grandfather. He looks upon his father’s work of digging potatoes and his grandfather’s labor digging peat as noble callings, but not right for him. Indeed, he seems to regard himself as not of the same caliber of “stuff” to follow in their footsteps. Instead, he will take up another traditional Irish vocation, that of the poet. He will dig – that is, make his mark on the earth and provide for his needs – as a poet.
But his work in this vocation will also allow him to “dig up” mysteries and delightful images to benefit others. This sense of the poet’s calling Heaney explores more fully in “The Diviner.” Here he presents “poetry as divination” and the poet likened unto one who uses a forked stick to divine for water. As he wrote in an essay entitled, “Feeling Into Worlds,” “The diviner resembles the poet in his function of making contact with what lies hidden, and in his ability to make palpable what was sensed or raised.” As the diviner needs a forked stick to discover hidden water, the poet needs the tools of his trade, and a certain confidence that hidden mysteries and meanings actually exist, in order to bring those freshets of meaning to the surface.
This same idea can be seen in “The Rain Stick,” where the poet leads us to discover worlds of water, and all the images and sentiments associated with those worlds, in the very place where no water exists whatsoever, the hollowed out branch of a cactus plant in which seeds and grit rush from one end to the other as the stick is upended.
Few poets – including Heaney – are able to make their living entirely by writing verse. However, this does not prevent their taking up poetry as their primary calling, the means by which they seek to realize their reason for being, and through which they hope to make the world a little more expansive and meaningful for the rest of us. Heaney regards the poet’s work, as he wrote in The Redress of Poetry, to be that of “[bringing] human existence into a fuller life”:
We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves. The best it can do is to give us an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering. What is at work in this most original and illuminating poetry is the mind’s capacity to conceive a new plane of regard for itself, a new scope for its own activity.
The poet whose work accomplishes this objective makes an extremely useful contribution to the rest of us.
The Function of Poetry But what does poetry do? What does it achieve? Two of Seamus Heaney’s objectives in the work of poetry are to dare and to delight. In “Digging” we see this idea of the poet as daredevil only in the background. It is skillfully suggested in the final stanza, which repeats the first stanza except for the omission of the words, “snug as a gun.” Heaney grew up in strife-torn Northern Ireland, and was himself torn with what his own role should be in view of “the troubles.” Should he just retire from nation’s pain and be a rural farmer, like his forebears? A noble and traditional calling, to be sure, but hardly the kind of work that will redeem a nation. Should he become a revolutionary? But can violence against one’s neighbors ever accomplish true redemption? His refusal to follow either of these paths would cause him trouble and pain at various times in his life. But by becoming a poet – a filidh, in the Celtic tradition – he keeps his Irish roots firm and takes up a calling that, he believes, has redemptive potential. And by omitting the phrase, “snug as a gun,” in the closing stanza he makes us mindful, by the absence of this image, which is nevertheless in his mind, that he believes his poetry can make its own “revolutionary” contribution to his nation’s future.
In many of his poems he dares his readers to find in verse a way out of their present, stultifying existence by delighting them with the experience of new worlds – water where there is none (“The Rain Stick”) or where one has to search carefully and diligently to find it (“The Diviner”). He challenges us to engage our imagination with ordinary things in order to discover extraordinary new meanings and possibilities. He dares his readers to let their minds expand to consider new worlds beyond their present, and to hope for better things, even as he delights them with remarkable and even unforgettable images. As he wrote in The Redress of Poetry,
An exuberant rhythm, a display of metrical virtuosity, some rising intellectual ground successfully surmounted – experiencing things like these gratifies and furthers the range of the mind’s and the body’s pleasures, and helps the reader to obey the old command: nosce teipsum. Know thyself.
The techniques of Poets In order to fulfill his calling and accomplish his purpose to dare and to delight, the poet must become a careful observer of the world around him, able to associate images of various kinds with one another and to link these with other images and ideas in order to reach into the soul of the reader. We see him doing this in a remarkable way in “Digging.” His father digging in the flower bed recalls an image of his father twenty years earlier digging potatoes. This connects with an image of his grandfather digging peat, with all the sights and sounds each image suggests. Then to connect their work with his own – the work of poetry – accomplishes the effect of rolling all the nobility and nuance, sweat and struggle, harvest and happiness of his father’s and grandfather’s vocations into his own choice of work. In so doing he invites the reader to consider his or her own sense of calling and connectedness to the past, present, and future.
The images that appear in Heaney’s poetry come from his rural past, experiences he has known, Ireland’s history and troubles, and everyday objects. Like the diviner the poet must believe there is in every image that presents itself to his mind a refreshing truth to be discovered. So, “nervous, but professionally/Unfussed”, he takes up the tools of his trade – the “squat pen” between his thumb and finger – and begins to walk the terrain of the image, waiting for the “pluck” of what lies beneath to announce its presence.
The working mechanism of poetry The challenge then becomes to relate that “pluck” in an image that will be familiar to the reader, so that what the poet experiences can be the reader’s experience as well. But it is not enough just to leave the reader saying, “I get it.” The poet wants the reader not just to see what he sees or know what he has come to know; he wants the reader to feel all the excitement, wonder, pain, anxiety, joy, or delight that he himself experienced in the process of making these associations of images. In order to accomplish this the poet draws on subtle devices – such as the slant-rhyme scheme in “The Diviner” and the careful alliteration of “s’s” and “ck” sounds to replicate the slushing and trickling of water in “The Rain Stick.” A poet must have “[a]n awareness of his own poetic process, and a trust in the possibility of his poetry” in order to bring his art to life (“Canticles to the Earth”). At the end of “Digging” we’re left with a kind of curiosity about the poet’s sense of calling by that modified image: Is he not going to use his poetry in a revolutionary manner? Or will his revolution be more subtle? He lets us know elsewhere that his purpose is clearly the latter, when he writes of “poetry’s high potential, its function as an agent of possible transformation, of evolution towards that more radiant and generous life which the imagination desires” (The Redress of Poetry).
Good poetry can thus expand our imagination, enlarge our world, enrich our experience, and enlighten our worldview. Because of the power of poetry to capture the affections, communicate ideas in images, and point people toward new possibilities, we who are committed to the Biblical worldview could realize much benefit by devoting at least part of our time in this endeavor to developing our ability to read and enjoy poetry. Seamus Heaney’s work can be an excellent place to begin or further refine your skills in this endeavor.
Heaney’s poetry is referred to as ‘vividly imaginative, whilst being firmly rooted in reality’, a sentence of which is essential in understanding Heaney’s poetry. Throughout each collection Heaney takes a central idea of ‘childhood’ or ‘place names’ and connects these through his own emotions to his strong feelings on the disastrous political situation in Ireland, ‘I am afraid’. However, The strong emotions Heaney feels connected through a central face value theme is most strongly shown through Heaney’s evocative imagery, metaphors and structure. Heaney’s poetry endeavours to be ‘vivid’ through using strong personal messages that relate to the reader but succeeds most readily by combining this with the subtlety of using a common theme. All the above features in Heaney’s poetry shows that as a poet, Heaney himself has achieved the redressing effects of poetry.