Poems Humped and Strong – What Seamus Heaney Leaves Behind

Seamus Heaney(1939-2013) - 1995 Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature

Seamus Heaney(1939-2013)
1995 Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature.
Image: Copyright John Minihan


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 lightening 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 came at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Seamus Heaney from Opened Ground – Poems 1966-1996, Faber and Faber Limited, 1998

In Ireland they affectionately called him Famous Seamus – Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013). And now he has gone. Too soon. This Irish poet, translator and essayist, so well-known around the world, has died. At age 74.

The internet was abuzz yesterday with his going from us, so unexpectedly. Obituaries abound. Blogs on his death abound. Click here for a particularly personal one which was sent to me by my friend Sheila. All these stories tell in great detail the breadth and achievements of his life.

He was born in Northern Ireland. Published his first book of poems Death of a Naturalist in 1996; moved in 1970 with his family to the Irish Republic when the so-called “Troubles”, the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland became more than he could bear; won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. He is a poet, who, I imagine, will stand the test of time. Who will be recognized, truly, as one of the finest English-speaking poets of his time or any other.

Inscription to poet Kathleen Raine in her copy of Death of a Naturalist

Inscription to poet Kathleen Raine in her copy of Death of a Naturalist

But today I feel bereft by his loss. It’s too soon. His letting go. The letting go he so metaphorically and unexpectedly described in his poem the Human Chain from his book of the same title published in 2010.


For Terrance Brown

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over the mob, I was braced again

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain, I’d worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave –

The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed

That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will once. And, for all.

from Human Chain, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010

So many Heaney trademarks in this poem. The descriptive but simple language (casual and modern), the use of Irish colloquialisms (lugs or handles), easy musical cadences and so much action going on! And the under-stated surprises. This starts off like a lovely rural scene and then we are dropped into what seems like a war zone and then focused back with a narrow depth of field to the action again as if everything was normal.

But the power of this poem for me is how he gives us the gorgeous and intricate description of throwing heavy bags, even down to the smallest detail of moving the grain at the corners to make handles (lugs) and then somehow how he translates all that physicality and motion, made so musical, into a huge thought about death. And he makes it even more unexpected by making that translation or leap part of a contradiction. something Vendler describes, in general, as his second thoughts. A letting go that will not come again./ Or it will once. And for all.

Listen to that play on words. By breaking the last sentence into two parts we receive a wonderful echo of the hackneyed expression, once and for all, while at the same time giving us this leap into a big thought on death. A deft double play, double meaning. The letting go of the those heavy bags become the letting go of our own heavy bodies at death. And in wonderful way this poem, in his twelfth and last book, becomes his epitaph: There was a once more. A final letting go. But now, truly, for him. His death yesterday in Dublin.

This poem holds so true in all its aspects to an Ars Poetica he wrote early in his writing career which he describes as Lines to myself.

In poetry I wish you would
Avoid the lifting platitude.
Give us poems humped and strong,
Laced tight with thongs of song,
Poems that explode in silence
Without forcing, without violence.
Whose music is string and clear and good
Like a saw zooming in seasoned wood.
You should attempt concrete expression,
Half-guessing, half expansion.

from Finders Keepers, Selected Prose 1971-2001, Faber & Faber, 2002

Helen Vendler, the celebrated American academic and literary critic, who is acknowledged by many as an outstanding authority on poetry, discovered Heaney at a summer-school poetry reading in Ireland in 1975. She says Heaney stood at the lectern and read some of the most extraordinary poems I had ever heard.

After the reading, Vendler asked Heaney if the poems would be appearing soon in a book and he said yes, that he had the galleys with him. They were the galleys of his book North which,  in her 1998 book on Heaney and his poetry titled Seamus Heaney,  she calls one of the crucial poetic interventions of the twentieth century, ranking with Prufrock [T.S. Eliot] and Harmonium [Wallace Stevens] and North of Boston [Robert Frost] in its key role in the history of modern poetry.

How his poetry was an isness. The event itself. Not a distant observation. I could say, of his poems, what he said of Sylvia Plaths, referencing Robert Lowell: They are, in Lowell’s words, events rather than the records of events…

His poem Postscript, which introduces this post, embodies this isness. We are there with him on the road speeding by the ocean on one side and a lake on the other, a lake with its swans, very reminiscent of W.B. Yeat’s The Wild Swans at Coole. We experience with him the event of seeing all of this and without stopping for a closer look suddenly we, who are invited on this wild ride, are buffeted and our hearts blown open. Our hearts are blown open in the poem. But what about in my life outside this poem. Is my heart seeing deeply enough to be blown open? If not, this poem asks me indirectly, why not?

When I think of poems of Heaney’s that have stayed with me, haunted me it is because they do what he believes poems are meant to do. To cause the reader to say: Yes, I know something like that too. Yes, that’s right; thank you for putting words on it and making it more or less official. For me, in particular, he does this in his remarkable sequence of sonnets dedicated to his mother and titled Clearances.

I have only lately begun the task of writing my “mother” poems. His poems in Clearances trigger me togo deeper into my “mother” memories, to dig down to see what new poems may discover. The prospect also scares me which it should. Here are two poems from that sequence:


When all the others are away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasure splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.


The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They’d make a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was X and she was O
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.

from Open Ground, ibid

I can’t conclude this memorial blog for Heaney without including his signature poem – Digging. It is the first poem in his first book. He wrote it in 1964. He describes it in his essay Feeling Into Words as an example of poems he has written that give me any right to speak: poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of culture to itself… He says this poem was the first I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words, or to put it more accurately, where I thought my feel had got into words.





Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravely ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man in 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.

from Open Ground, ibid

Oh My. And how he dug with it! Again what an isness in this scene. I, a reader, am there with him. But as in most of his poems there are so many layers in this poem – not just layers of peat. Vendler points out the critical importance of the second line – how it places Heaney in the context of the violent Ireland he grew up in and the choices he made to how to respond to it. Between my finger and my thumb/ the squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Vendler says: This is to conceive of writing as, like war, politics by other means. It is significant that in this – the first poem in his first book – Heaney regrets the concept of writing as aggression and chooses the spade as he final analogue for the pen: the pen will serve as an instrument of exploration and excavation, yielding warmth (like his Grandfather’s turf for fires) and nourishment (like his father’s potatoes).

This said, Heaney has not been afraid to write poems that grapple with dark and difficult human issues – violence, atrocities, injustice but he has done it in a particular way. A way he describes so powerfully in his essay Government of the Tongue:

Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense it is unlimited.It is like writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed.

[Here Heaney is  referring to the story in the Christian New Testament Bible of the woman caught in adultery. In that story the woman’s accusers want to stone her to death but Jesus writes something in the sand and challenges her accusers by saying, ‘He that is without sin among you let him first cast a stone at her’. This is enough to make the crowd disperse.]

Heaney continues: The drawing of those characters is like poetry, a break with the usual life but not an absconding from it. Poetry, like the writing, is arbitrary and marks time in every possible sense of that phrase. It does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused, ‘Now a solution will take place’, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as a distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.

To end  I will leave a last word to Heaney. His delightful small poem  about writing poetry. The first stanza is a msyterious lyric. Hard to fathom easily. And that seems to be the point. Some times a poem will stay mysterious. And Heaney ends with his arch poetic declaration. One I have heard other poets give as a description of a lyric poem – that it should start in the middle and end in the middle.

                                The Fragment

  ‘Light came from the east,’ he sang,
‘Bright guarantee of God, and the waves went quiet.
I could see headlands and buffeted cliffs.
Often, for marked courage, fate spares the man
                  It has not marked already.’

 And when their objection was reported to him –
That he had gone to bits and was leaving them
Nothing to hold on to, his first and last lines
Neither here nor there –
                                             ‘Since when,’ he asked,
‘Are the first line and the last line of any poem
Where the poem begins and ends?’

from Electric Light, Faber and Faber, 2001


  1. Donaleen Saul
    Posted September 1, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this wonderful acknowledgment and interpretation of Seamus Heaney’s poetic contribution, Richard. I learned a lot from reading this!

  2. Richard
    Posted September 1, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Dear Donnie: Appreciate the hello across the divided ether! I am haunted by Heaney’s passing in ways I never expected. I have a stack of his books, many autographed by him, but I had never dunked myself in his words as I have in the past 48 hours. A sad reason but a huge enjoyment. Will post more on him in the coming days!

  3. Barbara Black
    Posted September 1, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Wonderful tribute to Heaney, Richard. “There was a sunlit absence…”

  4. Richard
    Posted September 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Barbara: Love your lines! Went back to that poem Sunlight. Still mysterious as hell to me! Read an analysis for students but it doesn’t take the shine of the strangeness for me. So many conflicting images of beauty and hardship. ANd the last stanza. I don’t want to understand it. Just marvel at it. ANd here is love/like a tinsmith’s scoop/sunk past its gleam/in the meal bin. Is her love (the scoop) part of a bigger love (her family?)Does she give away her love from that bigger source that feeds her first? This makes me think of Jane Kenyon’s poem Let Evening Come.

  5. Barbara Black
    Posted September 1, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I admire how he places the quotidian within an almost spiritual concreteness, if that even makes sense. All these domestic actions are part of simple Being, and yet, he seems to suggest, this part of life should never be overlooked. The poem is written in a pace that leads the reader through these tasks, as if we are part of both the enactment and the devotion of the observing narrator. In this sense, I agree. It IS reminiscent of Jane Kenyon’s poem.

  6. Richard
    Posted September 2, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Yes even though he was not a Christain “believer” his sense of the echoes and reverberations of something deeply spiritual informs so much of his poetry. R

  7. savannah
    Posted September 2, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you again Richard, for your wonderful post.

  8. Richard
    Posted September 2, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for being a loyal reader! R

  9. Posted September 3, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Richard, how can I possibly have missed this man until now? Sharing my birthplace, and his words echoing of those things that make my heart prick up its ears. I’ve been following the news of his death, then your lovely epitaph here. How sad that this is the way I am inspired to read his work. But maybe that is true of all of us, the weight of what we write most heavy after we are gone? Thank you for you labours of love here on your blog, and in life. Warmly, LA

  10. Richard
    Posted September 6, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Warmly back to you. Strange, you know. I have read Heaney but not closely. Not tried to mine him for my workshops. And then with his death I dove in! I have collected his books over the years and discovered I have more of his volumes than anyone else other than Patrick Lane. Thank you for being such a supporter of my blog! R

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