Seamus Heaney’s Opened Ground: Poems, 1966-1996

In my memory, Seamus Heaney only died very recently, but I see now, as I research his life, that it has been seven long years since he passed away. I still remember where I was when I heard the news, and remember clearly my first thought: that the world’s most illustrious poet had died, and that there was no one to take his place. There are, no doubt, talented poets at work today, and poetry has been prematurely declared dead many times before, but he was in a category of his own, and poetry’s esteem and influence in the world – what little it could be said to have had, in 2013 – seems to have died with him.

Opened Ground appeared in 1998, three years after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and concludes with the full-length speech he gave upon reception of that award. I rather wish the publishers had placed this little speech in advance of the poems, for it highlights what Heaney esteemed about poetry, and what he wished to accomplish in his own writing. It is, ultimately, verisimilitude that Heaney esteems, not merely to life’s external forms, but to “the inner laws of the poet’s being” as well. “I credit poetry,” he tells us, “for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference. […] I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.” In his “Glanmore Sonnets” sequence, which functions as both a meditation and a manifesto on the kind of poetry he wished to produce, he interrupts himself in a poetic description of a farm scene with just such a connection between “the mind’s centre and its circumference”:


Outside the kitchen window a black rat
Sways on the briar like infected fruit:
‘It looked me through, it stared me out, I’m not
Imagining things. Go you out to it.’
Did we come to the wilderness for this?
We have our burnished bay tree at the gate,
Classical, hung with the reek of silage
From the next farm, tart-leafed as inwit.
Blood on a pitchfork, blood on chaff and hay,
Rats speared in the sweat and dust of threshing –
What is my apology for poetry?
The empty briar is swishing
When I come down, and beyond, inside, your face
Haunts like a new moon glimpsed through tangled glass.

The interjection of the question – “What is my apology for poetry?” – takes the reader by surprise, especially coming after the gory description of the pitchfork, though Heaney has prepared us for it with the description of his bay tree as being “tart-leafed as inwit,” for that unusual word inwit is Middle English, with even older roots, and means something like self-knowledge. The “beyond” he invokes is not a measure of physical distance but of psychic distance, better conveyed by “inside,” at which point we gain access to the poet’s mind, with the singularly beautiful image of a face that “haunts like a new moon glimpsed through tangled glass” – an image that becomes all the more striking when we remember that the poet is indoors, looking out a window at a briar, a tangled thicket of plants.

Heaney was, by common perception, a poet of the land, and though he does nothing to dispel that image – poems of nature, landscapes and animals dominate this volume – he nevertheless never lets us forget that his land, Ireland, has seen much bloodshed (think, again, of that bloody pitchfork referenced above). “Only the very stupid or the very deprived,” he tells us in his Nobel speech, “can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote.” In “Viking Dublin,” an excavation of Ireland’s violent heritage prompted by a museum visit and the sight of an inscribed Viking bone, he offers this self-description:

I am Hamlet the Dane,
skull-handler, parablist,
smeller of rot

in the state, infused
with its poisons,
pinioned by ghosts
and affections,

murders and pieties,
coming to consciousness
by jumping in graves,
dithering, blathering.

It’s impossible for us to think of Heaney as either a ditherer or a blatherer, a waster of words, but every Irish writer does indeed “come to consciousness” by jumping in the national graves. (I am reminded of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who famously described history as “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”) Very often, the weight of history feels oppressive. Here, for example, are the opening two stanzas of “Badgers,” with yet another abrupt and jarring interjection:

When the badger glimmered away
into another garden
you stood, half-lit with whiskey,
sensing you had disturbed
some soft returning.

The murdered dead,
you thought.
But could it not have been some violent shattered boy
nosing out what got mislaid
between the cradle and the explosion,
evenings when windows stood open
and the compost smoked down the backs?

In that period so euphemistically described as “The Troubles,” when Ireland went to war with itself, many a young boy was violently shattered “nosing out what got mislaid.” The poem, constantly teasing at a comparison between the real badger and those “murdered dead,” builds to a final stanza that shows, as well as any, Heaney’s power as a poet:

How perilous is it to choose
not to love the life we’re shown?
His sturdy dirty body
and interloping grovel.
The intelligence in his bone.
The unquestionable houseboy’s shoulders
that could have been my own.

The stanza begins with an open-ended question well worth asking, and culminates in something deeply personal: that what separates those shattered boys from Heaney is the briefest of time and the sheerest of luck.

I would like to conclude by once again quoting from his Nobel lecture, for it contains wisdom pertinent to us today. In 1995, at the time of his writing, optimism for a global world was at its apogee. The Cold War had recently ended, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the world was forging new, international organizations and alliances, both economic and diplomatic, that were promised to make the petty national conflicts of the 20th century a thing of the past. Amidst all of this enthusiasm, though, Heaney remained unwilling to relinquish his Irish identity, as both burden and benefit:

Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in the ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect of the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.

Ultimately, history will be the final arbiter of whether or not we have succeeded in creating such a salubrious space, but for a testament to the lasting value of the indigenous, we need look no further than the poetry of Seamus Heaney.