Edition: Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996
SUMMARY/BACKGROUNDS and COMMENTARY:
Collection: Death of a Naturalist (1966)
These early poems present local, rural images associated with Heaney's childhood--Heaney lived from his birth until his teenage years at Mossbawn, a family farmhouse. These poems, though pastoral, are not exactly peaceful ones. These poems were written before the so-called "troubles" beginning around 1968 in Northern Ireland so they don't wrestle specifically with recent political violence, but seem to nevertheless register a more abstract violence in the rhythms of natural life and farm-work which interacts with nature. The language and images of these poems are extremely physical and tactile, metrically, the poems possess a Hopkins-esque assertiveness and energy appropriate to images of rural disruption and violence. Sonically, these poems are filled with onomotapoeic effects. In his Nobel Prize speech later, Heaney would describe his early life at the farm as a kind of "creaturely existence," which I think is exactly what the tactility and physicality of these early poems convey.
"Digging" links his father's digging for potatoes with his spade with his own "digging" with a pen. Tactile images like the "cool hardness in our hands" of the potatoes and the physicality of his father's work, "Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder, doing down and down" bring words close to the feeling of this kind of rural labor. This is, after all, the main subject of the poem: through the physicality of his language and the linked images of the pen and the spade, the poet is able to trace a kind of genealogy between the work of his father and his own work.
"Death of a Naturalist" describes the violence of "frogspawn" bursting; also the rot, the festering which surrounds this "frogspawn." The poet recalls filling "jampotfuls of jellied / Specks to range on window-sills at home...and wait and watch until / The fattening dots burst into nimble-/Swimming tadpoles." This "frogspawn" takes its revenge, however, on a hot day when he hears the frogs' "coarse croaking," the "slap" and "plop" of their "obscene threats." Similarly, in "Blackberry Picking," nature kind of fights back "where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots" and when the bath of blackberries inevitably rots. The poet writes, disappointingly, "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."
"The Diviner" describes the art of finding water with a "forked hazel stick." When it strikes water, the movement is sudden, live, and violent: "The pluck came sharp as a sting. / The rod jerked with precise convulsions / Spring water suddenly broadcasting / Through a green hazel its secret stations." Everywhere, nature seems to be bursting and rupturing, leaving in the wake of such violence a messy decay.
Collection: North (1975)
This collection was published following the breakout of intense political violence which had reached a peak in 1972 (the more violent Provisional IRA formed in this period, the infamous Bloody Sunday or Bogside Massacre also happened in 1972). In efforts to contain the violence, London issued a "direct rule" over the north of Ireland as a sort of temporary solution. North's attention to this violence is worked through images of bodies (ancient and recent) recovered from boglands; the ways in which these poems aestheticize corpses and the violence done to them has been fairly controversial. The second half of this collection moves away from these aestheticized images of violence, turning towards issues of the poet's place and responsibility towards the violence of the contemporary world.
In "Funeral Rites" the poet is lifting coffins of dead relations and looking upon their corpses: "their eyelids glistening, / their dough-white hands / shackled in rosary beads." These are not merely aestheticized corpses but also Catholicized ones by the rosary beads, and later, melting candles, and "gleaming crosses" complete the picture. The lines are short (generally trimeter) and move quickly down the page grouped in an orderly fashion of four lines each to a stanza, reminding one of ritual and regular rhythms of religious ceremony. The poet seems to imagine that the religiously tinged aestheticization of the dead brings something redeeming to the violence, though it might be inadequate. This tension is expressed best in by following lines: "...Gunnar / who lay beautiful / inside his burial mound, / though dead by violence / and unavenged."
In poems like "Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces" and "Bone Dreams," words are associated with biological debris, as if words can do the work of ordering these bodily fragments, making them valuable and beautiful. The words are literally in "bits" in "Bone Dreams," fragmented but aestheticized: "White bone found / on the grazin: / the rough porous / language of touch" an "flit-find, nugget / of chalk, / I touch it again, / I wind it in / the sling of mind / to pitch it at England / and follow its drop / to strange fields." The "pitching" of these bone bits at England deliberately situates these bone bits in the history of and continual violence of English colonialism.
"Bog Queen" is a first-person imagining of the decaying matter having a sort of consciousness: she says that her body "was braille / for the creeping influences: / dawn suns groped over my head / and cooled at my feet." Later, the account talks about a memory of violence and (sexualized) trauma: "I was barbered and stripped / by a turf-cutter's spade."
Works like "Grauballe Man," "Strange Fruit," and "Punishment" seem to ask whether violence done in the past to a corpse is mitigated somehow by the absence of human physicality in the "matter" which makes up the corpse in the present. The "grain" of the Grauballe man's wrists "is like bog oak, / the ball of his heel / like a basalt egg. / His instep has shrunk / cold as a swan's foot / or a wet swamp root." The girl's head in the next poem is like an "exhumed gourd," a "strange fruit." These images suggest that neither of them are human anymore, so what does that mean for past violence? "Punishment" wrestles with this question, and even more specifically asks if calling attention to a body's state as non-human mitigates sexual trauma. In the beginning, the poet sexualizes the body, trying to imagine feeling "the tug / of the halter at the nape / of her neck, the wind / on her naked front." Yet she is "oak-bone, brain-firkin," so when the wind "blows her nipples / to amber beads," perhaps there isn't anything lurid about it at all. Still, the poet persists in imagining her history as a "Little adultress," but again, her current state resists these human characteristics that would make violence, sexual or otherwise, a problem. Now, she's just "darkened combs," "muscles' webbing," and "numbered bones."
The later poems in this collection move away from these more abstract wrestlings with violence, aestheticization, language, and "matter," drawing attention to the specific political contexts under which Heaney was writing. "Act of Union" are two sonnets in the first-person voice of England essentially raping Ireland: Ireland is eroticized as a female, England says, "Your back is a firm line of eastern coast / And arms and legs are thrown / Beyond your gradual hills." The moment of violence is in the second stanza, ending with England leaving Ireland ruined for all time: "No treaty / I foresee will salve completely your tracked / And stretchmarked body, the big pain / That leaves you raw, liked opened ground, again." Not particularly positive, to say the least, about the history of colonization and the continuing conflict into the late twentieth-century. "Summer 1969" describes the poet in Madrid, while hearing of violence happening on television. He retreats to the Prado, seeing paintings of violence (like Goya's "Third of May") and suggests that these images of art make violence seem more real than the journalistic accounts in newspapers and television. Both this poem and "Exposure" work through Heaney's own place, as a poet, in all of this violence and express anxiety over what poetry can do (or maybe can't do). "How did I end up like this," he asks in this latter poem, "As I sit weighing and weighing / My responsible tristia. / For what? For the ear? For the people? / For what is said behind-backs?" The tone here is self-mocking and severely ironic in using a rather "high" term like "tristia." In his Nobel lecture, Heaney explains that at the time he had moved with his family to Wicklow, south of Dublin, "Feeling puny in my predicaments as I read about the tragic logic of Osip Mandelstam's fate in the nineteen-thirties, feeling challenged yet steadfast in my non-combatant status..."
Collection: Station Island (1984)
This collection, highly autobiographical, works out on a very personal level Heaney's own sense of his vocation as a poet. Loosely recalling Dante's Purgatorio, the poet encounters deceased friends and literary precursors. Helen Vendler describes the eponymous long central sequence (divided into twelve parts) of this collection as a series of potential "alter-egos" of Heaney's, which he imagines he might have been instead. As a whole, the collection doesn't seem to resolve the central question of what a poet is to do amidst the reality of violence, what to do with his guilt or his responsibility.
"Station Island" takes its name from a medieval place of pilgrimage which remains up to the contemporary age as such. The sections vary widely as far as form goes; many are dialogic, with the poet in conversation with different "alter egos" as Vendler argues. The sections detail available vocations, like farm, priest, or schoolmaster. The poet speaks with a missionary who has been disillusioned, failing and returning from the rain forest. The poet at first feels a "strange reversal," having come for confession, but then he is rebuked for his poetry might be the same kind of failed mission: "what are you doing here / but the same thing?" the father asks. "I at least was young and unaware." Many of these dialogues are difficult for the poet; another particularly damning one is his conversation with Colum, his cousin who died as a result of sectarian violence: Colum says, "You saw that, and you wrote that--not the fact. / You confused evation and artistic tact. / The Protestant who shot me through the head / I accuse directly, but indirectly, you / who now atone perhaps upon this bed / for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew / the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio / and saccharined my death with morning dew." The voice of Colum charges Heaney with the crime of aestheticizing death and violence, belittling its horror. Joyce is perhaps the kindest to him, telling him, essentially, to stop worrying about these issues and to just write: "Let go, let fly, forget." Joyce is belittling though, about the "pilgrimage," calling it "infantile," and a "peasant pilgrimage."
Collection: Spirit Level (1996)
Written a year after receiving the Nobel Prize, and two years after Ulster paramilitaries and the IRA signed a truce, this collection represents for many critics a break from Heaney's earlier work. Certainly the impasse which seems to characterize "Station Island" seems broken, and many of these poems lay claim to adequacy and value. In his prize speech, Heaney refers to the story of a minibus stopped on the side of a road by IRA terrorists. The passengers were directed to stand in a line, and Catholics were encouraged to step aside to acknowledge their beliefs. Assuming those who had stopped them to be Protestant militants, a Protestant squeezes the hand of the one Catholic old man in their company to signal he needn't step out. The old Catholic steps out to acknowledge his faith, and the rest of the Protestants are slaughtered. Heaney describes the work of poetry as "credit[ing] as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures." In another section of the speech, Heaney expresses his faith that there is an "adequacy" in lyric poetry for doing such work.
Vendler characterizes the "value" of many poems in this collection as a kind of middle-age stoicism not particularly common to lyric (if only because so many lyric poets happened to die young). Characters in this collection, perhaps most obviously Hugh Heaney in "Keeping Going" move on with the business of everyday, seemingly mundane, everyday living in the face of the violence of man's brains being shot out against the whitewashed building: "My dear brother, you have good stamina. / You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor / Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people, / You shout and laugh above the revs, you keep / Old roads open by driving on the new ones." As if paralleling the saving grace in the performance of the ordinary after the trauma of violence, the language in this collection seems much simpler, concrete, and less abstract than in "Station Island." Poems like "Rain Stick" celebrate the simply joys of hearing the sounds of the rain stick; "Mint" calls upon the reader to look for "newness in the back yard of our life," the sprigs of mint that grow wild "beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles." These are both calls to regard the power of what might be overlooked and disregarded after so much of the horrific had happened. These sentiments are related to the poet's re-valuation of his vocation in this section: like St. Kevin in "St. Kevin and the Blackbird," the poet must strive "To labour and not seek reward," or like the "journeyman tailor" in "At Banagher," never "question[s] what it all amounts to." This steady, stoic work which the poet strives for isn't exactly the same as what Joyce suggests to him in "Station Island" which seems more revolutionary and "high," the middle-age poet doesn't seek to fly but to return to earth and work, as Caedmon sings during the time that he isn't doing yardwork ("Caedmon"). In these figurations of stoicism there is an obvious echo through allusion to the ancient world (e.g., the poet figuring himself as a lookout in "Mycenae Lookout" who is simply there to watch, with a "frozen stare" the destruction of Troy) and also to an Eastern, Buddhist sort of denial of self (again, as in St. Kevin's forgetting his own pain or self in the labor of holding his arms out for the blackbird's eggs to hatch). The poet no longer wrestles with writing to exorcise guilt or take responsibility, but chooses to write as a kind of witness to the other ordinary things of value that remain even after scenes of destruction and violence.