Seamus Heaney’s genius shines through in new selections: New Selected Poems 1966-1987, 1988-2013
Review: Recordings of the poet reading his own work enhance appreciation of its power
Two women look out at Seamus Heaney during a photocall in IMMA celebrating his 70th birthday today in April 2009. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
New Selected Poems 1988-2013
Faber & Faber
When Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney’s much admired selection of poems from 1966-1996, was published, in 1998, an author’s note observed that the book contained “a greater number of poems than would usually appear in a Selected Poems, fewer than would make up a Collected”, so the volume belonged “somewhere between the two categories”.
In addition to the poems selected from the 10 volumes published up to 1996, the book’s 498 pages contained extracts that the author selected from The Cure at Troy, his version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, and, as an afterword, Crediting Poetry, Heaney’s acceptance speech for the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1995.
Opened Ground served as an invaluable extended Selected volume for the 15 years between its appearance and the poet’s death, in 2013. But its eminence became an increasing problem for the reader as the years went by and the celebrated later volumes appeared: the Beowulf translation, in 1999, Electric Light, in 2001, District and Circle, in 2006, and Human Chain, in 2010. It also put into a kind of limbo the relatively full Selected that had appeared in 1990, drawing on the volumes up to The Haw Lantern, in 1987.
That selected volume, republished now, was further marginalised because it contained a smaller representation of the earlier individual volumes than Opened Ground. One value of the publication of these two selected volumes from the whole corpus is that they give a fairly equal representation of all the volumes from Death of a Naturalist to Human Chain. An incidental attraction is that Faber & Faber is also publishing a two-disc recording, drawing on the two volumes, of the poet himself reading. These are mostly from the RTÉ 2009 recording. There are few poets whose reading voice is so crucial to the poems’ effect.
A publisher’s note to the second volume, New Selected Poems 1988-2013, tells us that Heaney had himself made selections from Electric Light, District and Circle and Human Chain for a prospective edition of his works in Italian. So the new second volume of poems includes the selections from Seeing Things and The Spirit Level that the poet made for Opened Ground and another Heaney-authorised selection from the last three volumes.
The two volumes therefore now comprise the poet’s selections from his whole career, plus two extracts from Beowulf and a beautiful coda, In Time, a poem for Heaney’s granddaughter Síofra, dated 12 days before his death. So, resting on the poet’s own choices, his publishers have reached an ideal solution to the problem of quickly producing an authoritative and representative selection from the whole, magnificent corpus.
The representation is remarkably symmetrical: the earlier of these volumes draws on poems across 24 years; the second covers 22. It is possible now, if such a thing were necessary, to weigh the relative merits of Heaney’s individual volumes, diverse as they were, based on a more or less equal representation.
Most of those volumes have been proposed at some point as being Heaney’s greatest: Death of a Naturalist, Wintering Out, North, Field Work, Station Island, Seeing Things, The Spirit Level, Human Chain. Even if such comparisons are invidious, it is instructive to see how the various volumes weigh by roughly equal representation. Since Opened Ground we have been able to compare only the whole, unselected volumes from Electric Light onwards with the poems from the earlier volumes that had been selected as preeminent.
It is also useful to be reminded of the standard narrative of Heaney’s development since his acclaimed first volume, in 1966. To give a crude oversimplification of this narrative, the early poetry was praised for its capacity to describe and evoke the natural world with extraordinary exactness. Then, disrupted by the Troubles in the period after 1969, the volumes from the 1970s turned to more public themes, particularly in the desolate Bog Poems.
Thereafter the work oscillated between public matters and descriptive or domestic subjects until Seeing Things – conveniently, the medial transitional volume in these Selecteds – moved decisively towards “crediting marvels” rather than politics. Even so, in the following volumes:
That old sense of a tragedy going on
Uncomprehended, at the very edge
Of the usual, it never left me once (from Known World in Electric Light)
If the sense of tragedy ever did leave Heaney it was, ironically, in the beautiful poems of regret and wistfulness in his final volume, Human Chain, which, like late Yeats, saw the poet at the height of his powers as he approached the end of his life.
The principal limitation of this kind of chronological account is that it fails to note Heaney’s unflagging and extraordinary technical skills. For example his early gift for descriptive accuracy did not leave him when he was dealing with nondomestic events.
The exactness that was so much admired in Death of a Naturalist was no less operative in the emotional context of Human Chain, where the suits of his dead father in the wardrobe are described as “slightly bandy-sleeved” or where the poet’s right arm helping his dying father to the bathroom takes “the webby weight of his underarm”. Such examples could be drawn from anywhere in the corpus.
What is new is the selections made, in the 2014 selection, from the three volumes in the first decade of the 21st century. Electric Light (2001) – for example in the poem Known World, from which I quoted earlier – is usually read as evidence (if evidence were needed) that Heaney was never afraid to risk controversy in taking up positions – or not.
The volume extended political scrutiny and responsibility further afield than Ireland. Immediately after Electric Light Heaney was the international poet of 9/11, in Anything Can Happen, which was translated worldwide. Known World is omitted from the Selected, along with some other Electric Light sequences, such as the magical The Loose Box, which contains one of the most endearing passages from the corpus:
On an old recording Patrick Kavanagh states
That there’s health and worth in any talk about
The properties of land. Sandy, glarry,
Mossy, heavy, cold . . .
Presumably, the decision to omit these significant sequences was made on aesthetic grounds – their looseness, maybe, and the space required by their length. Some major short poems that drew on the material of Beowulf are also omitted, no doubt because they had been published in the context of the whole poem in 1999.
What certainly did not influence the omissions from Electric Light was any shrinking from public statement: among the wonderful Sonnets from Hellas (all six of which are kept in the Selected) we have The Augean Stables, with Heaney’s outraged protest at the murder of Sean Brown of the Bellaghy GAA Club, as the poet in Greece imagined:
Hose-water smashing hard back off the asphalt
In the car park where his athlete’s blood ran cold.
In considering the selections from District and Circle it is impossible not to fall back on considerations of taste. There are some indispensable inclusions, such as Anything Can Happen, Quitting Time and The Blackbird of Glanmore. You miss Poet to Blacksmith and Midnight Anvil, among established favourites, but the very fact that they are favourites might be a reason to let them make their own way in the world and be replaced by eloquent but maybe less immediately engaging things, such as the pieces of Found Prose.
If piety in friendship seems to have been a decisive factor in the selections made from District and Circle, with elegies for Czeslaw Milosz and Ted Hughes, piety of the most profound kind determines the choices from Human Chain. It is remarkable how well known the sequences about his parents, Album, and about his stroke, Chanson d’Aventure, have become in the four years since they appeared. Miracle – “Not the one who takes up his bed and walks” – and the haunting elegy for David Hammond are similarly canonical already.
The 12-poem sequence Route 110, formally gesturing back to the 12-liners in Seeing Things, is a microcosm of Human Chain, from the poet’s infancy to his granddaughter’s. And of course that book is a microcosm of the whole corpus, from Blackberry-Picking to “the house of death”.
This double Selected is a marvellous way to read Heaney, especially when supplemented by the recordings. It was nearly half a century after his death before the authoritative Collecteds of Yeats began to appear. For Heaney, pending a Collected, these books are an eminently satisfying interim measure, bidding to fulfil the function that was served in Yeats’s case by the cherished red Macmillan volume.
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