The Books: Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966 – 1998, by Seamus Heaney

Daily Book Excerpt: Poetry

The next book on my poetry shelf is Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, by Seamus Heaney.

I had no particular gift for writing what were called “compositions”, and no particular enjoyment of it. But I do remember a moment, early on at St Columb’s, when the topic was “A Day at the Seaside” and I made a connection between the performative student in me and a more inward creature, the writer-in-waiting, if you like. In the middle of the list of usual, expected activities such as diving and swimming, neither of which I could do, I wrote about going into an amusement arcade to escape from a shower and being depressed by the wet footprints on the floor and the cold, wet atmosphere created by people in their rained-on summer clothes. This had actually happened to me, so the image and the recording of it had a different feel. Something in me knew that I was on the right, intimate track – but it took me years to follow up.- Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney is so tied up in my father and my feelings about my father that there is no separation. It’s an association that is forever linked. My father gave me this collection. As a matter of fact, he gave me most of the Seamus Heaney books I have on my shelf. I went to go hear Heaney read a while back at NYU, and it was a strange situation. The man is a giant star. He’s won the Nobel Prize. But he read in a classroom at NYU, and there were maybe 40 people in attendance. Students and teachers. I can’t even remember how I heard about it and how I got in there. I think it was free. So I got to see him up close and personal, and I talked with him a little bit afterwards. It was an intimate setting. What a delight. He is so funny. Normally he plays to packed houses and you never get near the guy. He is wonderful live, hearing him read his own stuff gives you a deeper understanding of what is going on with him. Not that his poems are opaque or difficult – I find them entirely accessible. It’s just that he has a wonderfully expressive voice, and you hear the humor, the life, the humanity in his work when you hear him read. His translation of Beowulf (which was on the NY Times best-seller list, a moment of glory where you wonder what has happened that such a miracle could take place – Beowulf a best-seller!!) is fantastic, but even more fantastic is the audio book, with him reading it. It is a MUST-HEAR. I sometimes turn it on when I’m cleaning or mopping, because it’s such engaging and fun background noise. I wish we had read THAT translation back in high school.

He’s also a terrific critic, and his writings on other writers is engaging, interesting, and makes me see things I would never pick up on. I’m not a scholar. I don’t know much about poetry beyond what I like. Heaney’s essays on what other poets are doing, with their language, their form, help me to get that world, which can sometimes seem too exclusive for an outsider to understand.

Heaney’s Nobel Prize lecture is a masterpiece of its kind. A lot of Nobel lectures are boring, self-serving, and political. While Heaney’s lecture is quite political (no Irish writer can ever fully avoid the political), his main interest is in language, and how writers use it. He wrote once:

“Let me quote my hero, Milosz: ‘Poetry below a certain level of awareness does not interest me.’ I think there’s a problem with political poetry that is howling that it’s aware.”


In his Nobel lecture, Heaney said:

But there is another kind of adequacy which is specific to lyric poetry. This has to do with the “temple inside our hearing” which the passage of the poem calls into being. It is an adequacy deriving from what Mandelstam called “the steadfastness of speech articulation,” from the resolution and independence which the entirely realized poem sponsors. It has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem’s concerns or the poet’s truthfulness. In fact, in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself. And it is the unappeasable pursuit of this note, a note tuned to its most extreme in Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan and orchestrated to its most opulent in John Keats, it is this which keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice behind all the other informing voices.

How can he, the poet, make room for the “marvellous” as well as the “murderous”? He tells some great stories (harrowing, and also beautiful) about the Troubles, but also about some of the myths/legends that meant something to him as a writer (the one of crazy ol’ St. Kevin at Glendalough is particularly good).

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes of Heaney’s influences:

Heaney’s model is not Joyce and not the great Irish Tain. It is Auden, who teaches that the poet’s tasks are making, judging and knowing. The making starts for Heaney in inadvertent politics. In 1974 he spoke of the Republican street rhymes he learned at Anahorish school, full of resistance and Irish patriotism. He was forced to memorize Byron and Keats. He loved to hear Wordsworth’s characters but he could not speak their accents aloud. He got over his schooling. He was touched deeply by Hopkins, by Frost and Roethke, by Patrick Kavanagh. Later he was knocked rather off course by the power of Lowell’s poems and by Lowell’s presence in Ireland. His approach to the present and its recurrences is generally through analogues – ghosts, bog people, childhood – the past lighting and alighting on the prsent. It is a deeply conservative aesthetic. ‘Beware of “literary emotion,” ‘, he says, and it is of Wordsworth, the poet of The Prelude that he reminds us. The particularity of the early poems with their dependence on mimetic sound, their attempt to get close to the rural world, ensured his popularity.

Opened Ground is a giant daunting collection. I still haven’t read even half of it. I flip the book open and read whatever poem happens to be on the page. I have my favorites. The collection starts off with the poem “Digging“, the first poem where Heaney found his voice, back in the 60s. It was his breakthrough. He has written essays about it, about what was going on with him when he wrote that poem. It is a deceptively simple poem. A young man (Heaney) sits inside holding a pen. Outside, his father digs in the dirt with a spade. The young man observes his father, digging (“By God, the old man could handle a spade.”), and knows that that life will not be for him. He holds a pen: “I’ll dig with it.” It is a young man’s poem, a declaration of individuality, separation from tradition and family, a “mission statement”. The rural rhythms are there, the feel and smell of turf and peat, and also the decision to “go deep”. He’s not going to WRITE with his pen. He is going to DIG with it.

Born in 1939, the first of nine children, Heaney grew up in Ballaghy, a village in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. His family were farmers and cattle-dealers.

Heaney said once:

My sensibility was formed by the dolorous murmurings of the rosary, and the generally Marian quality of devotion. The reality that was addressed was maternal, and the posture was one of supplication.

He went to Queen’s University in Belfast, which put him right in the thick of the modern poetry movement, not to mention the political upheaval of the day. Ted Hughes eventually became a friend, Heaney had read his work early on, and had a couple of lightbulbs go off in his mind about what poetry could do, what a modern (yet also rural) voice might sound like. In Belfast, Heaney got a couple of important mentors, who led him this way and that way – introducing him to the work of Patrick Kavanagh, an important watershed moment for Heaney (and for most Irish poets). My post about Kavanagh here. Heaney became a teacher, and also started publishing poems. He was a part of the Belfast Group, which put him in contact with the Northern Irish voices still resonating today, although they were all just starting out then. Derek Mahon (post about him here), Michael Longley (post about him here), and others. Heaney had a collection of poetry published in the mid-60s, but it was his second collection Death of a Naturalist, published in 1967, that put him on the map. It won many prizes, and received critical acclaim. It’s a wonderful collection. You can feel that you are hearing a new voice, a voice you want to hear again and again and again.

Since then, the prizes and awards are too numerous to mention. Dude is everywhere. He is still publishing. His books of essays are wonderful. His pieces on current Irish writing, as well as Irish writing in the past, are necessary for Irish literature lovers. And then there are the poems. Again, there’s too much of it for me to have read all of it. I will get to all of it someday!

The tensions within Heaney’s background (the Northern Irish tensions, the rural-urban tensions, the Catholic-Protestant tensions) are all unresolved in him. To resolve them would mean to cut off the wellspring of his talent. He writes FROM that tension. It is what gives him his voice, his outlook.

Heaney said of his education:

I learned that my local County Derry experience, which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to ‘the modern world’ was to be trusted. They taught me that trust and helped me to articulate it.

Michael Schmidt again:

English, the argument runs, is a language imposed on Ireland; it is historically and semantically inimical to Heaney’s Irish Catholic experience. It is colored by Protestantism, it excludes whole registers of feeling, it ironizes attitudes that are close to Heaney’s heart. What are the ‘exclusive civilities’? What hegemony can a language exercise through literature? To what extent is a language we are born to, which our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were born to, imposed, to what extent is it given? Imposition is on the first and sometimes the second generation: then the people get hold of their language; they alter it, infiltrate it, make spaces in it, possess it. Stephen Dedalus in the famous ‘tundish’ scene in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a witness to the difference of dialect between the English mentor and the Irish youth. He doesn’t wish he spoke Irish instead of English. He is stating a fact: that languages in different usage develop different valencies. He resents hearing his form of the language patronized by one who imagines his version is superior. Heaney’s and Brathwaite’s stance is now a commonplace, a form of rhetoric that can be adapted to various causes. Language is subvertible, however, and poetry has been and remains a means of subversion. But only if, as in Hill, it is reified, only if the poem is in and against its language. The subtle redress of such poetry is for the reader rather than the audience.

He is the greatest living poet. I feel so fortunate that he is living and writing in my time, that we are on the planet in the same era. I get to look forward to what he will do next.

While there may be more famous poems in this huge volume, I have to go with my favorite. I have written about it before. In the late 90s, my sister Siobhan was in school in Dublin. My sister Jean and I flew over there in November to go hang out with her. We crashed in her dorm room, and Siobhan was busy with school so while we definitely went on a couple of day trips with her (a particularly memorable one involved us driving to the aforementioned Glendalough, where we then proceeded to have such a laughing FIT as sisters that we disturbed all of the other people there communing with nature), Jean and I went across the island to hang out in Galway, go out to the Aran Islands, all that Western Irish stuff. Now, we had all been to Ireland as kids, on an extended trip (my father was on sabbatical and he took the whole family with him to Ireland), so we basically were just re-visiting all of the places we had been to when we were children. It was a riot. Jean and I took off across Ireland on – I think it’s called the N6? – anyway, it’s the road from Dublin to Galway, a straight-shot across the island. We were headed to Galway (we ended up staying in a youth hostel in this crazy town – God, so many funny memories), and it was cold and wintry, and we were looking forward to a crazy ferry ride out to the Aran Islands the next day. It was late in the day, sunset, with long slanted shadows, and on the side of the road, Jean saw a sign for CLONMACNOISE. “Hey! Clonmacnoise!” she cried. It was not on our itinerary but we remembered our visit there as kids, so we pulled off the road to go take a visit. It’s an old crumbling medieval monastery, with giant tilting Celtic crosses on a hillside, and a river flowing by below. It is a spectacular spot. In the church itself is a fertility carving – the Síle na Gig (PJ Harvey wrote a song about them) – and I find it strange and cool that I am named after these things. Women come and rub the statue if they are trying to have a baby. Anyway, it’s a strange and haunting spot, and we were there at sunset, so the place was closed, and it was November anyway, totally off-season. We had the run of it to ourselves. We wandered around in the beautiful setting and I took the best photograph I have ever taken, of a hillside covered in enormous tilting Celtic crosses – and the sunset light is so stark and strong that the hill is black, and all of the crosses come up in stark black silhouette. And walking among the crosses is my sister Jean, but at first glance, she looks like she’s one of the crosses. It is only on second glance that you can tell it is a human figure. It was a magical respite. We were the only ones there. We hung out on the premises until it got dark and then we got back in our car and powered on to Galway to find a place to stay.

There is a story about Clonmacnoise, one of those legends that have a strange ring of truth to it. Back in the middle ages, the place was full of monks. Those hearty huddled-up souls who kept language and education alive through very dark times. Oases of civilization and learning. Clonmacnoise is, even now, in the middle of nowhere, and because the river is so low and surrounded by marshes, the effect of reflection is often rather disorienting. It seems that the sky bleeds down into the earth. There is a complete mirror effect – sky and water. It is fantastic. Anyway, the story goes, that one day at Clonmacnoise, the monks looked up and saw a ship floating by up in the air. The anchor was dragging on the ground, from far above, and it got caught on the altar of the church, stopping the ship in the air. A sailor climbed down the rope to unhook the anchor, and very quickly started to drown. In the air below. The monks helped unhook the anchor, and helped the man climb back up the rope, to the atmosphere that he could bear – and then the ship floated on out of sight.

There are those today who swear that this happened. I loved when I first posted this story, years ago, one commenter said, “UFO?” Love that. There are strange things on heaven and earth, and it might be better, in terms of your mental health, to believe, rather than not believe.

If you go to Clonmacnoise, and you see the way the water reflects the sky so perfectly, it is immediately apparent why such a legend would exist. You often ask yourself, “Now … which way is up?” The river looks like the sky.

When Jean and I returned to America, we sat in the living room at home and told Dad some of the stories of our trip. We mentioned our impromptu visit to Clonmacnoise and how beautiful and quiet it was there.

Dad got up out of his chair (the chair that now sits in my apartment), walked to the shelf, pulled down a book (the very book I am talking about today), flipped through it to a specific page, and read us a poem.

So now, I cannot read this poem without hearing it in my father’s gravelly yet warm voice.

This was one of my dad’s favorites of Heaney’s poems. It is part of a larger sequence, with numbered poems.

For me, it is the last line that shows Heaney’s genius.


The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

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One Response to The Books: Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966 – 1998, by Seamus Heaney

  1. dg says:

    Sheila, I think you could write about this giant for days on end(and I would read every word). You’re lucky in that your father led you into all of these guys. Although I’m very much an Irish American I wasn’t exposed to the real culture as a youngster-other than the drinking. I came across Heaney accidentally one night back in the 90’s-on the Charlie Rose show of all places. Heaney was on and he read “mint” which was a new poem at the time. I was totally engrossed. I then began reading much more of his poetry and now I feel like it lives inside of me everyday. I even began to memorize many of his poems. You know how much a poem opens up for one once one memorizes it. Your post, with that great last line, got me to thinking Heaney is a great finisher-many of his last lines are killers. Just off the top of my head I’m thinking “I’ll dig with it”, “to set the darkness echoing”, “forgotten the rivers name” , “to beat the real iron out, to work the bellows”…I could go on obviously and so could you. I too am so happy to be alive at the same time as such a great poet. And I’m definitely going to download Beowolf on Audio. Thanks for the heads upon that and thanks for the great post.

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