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Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem

31 Aug 13 - 02:42 AM (#3554645)
Subject: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: Kampervan

Following Seamus Heaney's death I've realised that I don't recall reading any of his poems.

Now I don't read a lot of poetry, but I think that I'd like to try and understand what made him so special.

He wrote so many poems that, rather than starting at random,I'd be interested in hearing which poems people think best reflect him.

I'm being deliberately vague because I don't want to pick out any one aspect of his work , e.g. political, I just want people to pick the poems that spoke to them.


31 Aug 13 - 04:21 AM (#3554655)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: GUEST,Blandiver

His translation of Buile Shuibhne (Sweeney Astray, 1983) has been a favourite of mine these past 30 years. He revisited the theme the following year in his collection Station Island with the mighty 'Sweeney Redivivus' which features this:

The First Kingdom

The royal roads were cow paths.
The queen mother hunkered on a stool
and played the harpstrings of milk
into a wooden pail.
With seasoned sticks the nobles
lorded it over the hindquarters of cattle.

Units of measurement were pondered
by the cartful, barrowful and bucketful.
Time was a backward rote of names and mishaps,
bad harvests, fires, unfair settlements,
deaths in floods, murders and miscarriages.

And if my right to it all came only
by their acclamation, what was it worth?
I blew hot and blew cold.
They were two-faced and accommodating.
And seed, breed and generation still
they are holding on, every bit
as pious and exacting and demeaned.

31 Aug 13 - 05:07 AM (#3554669)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: GUEST,Mike Yates

There are just too many to choose from! I must admit, though, to admiring his translation of "Beowulf". Splendid stuff!

31 Aug 13 - 05:30 AM (#3554672)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem

I'm very fond of his bog sacrifice poems. And the Beowulf too.

31 Aug 13 - 07:10 AM (#3554697)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: GUEST,Lavengro

His translation/interpretation of Beowulf is fantastic stuff! There are the more obvious ones that (almost) everyone likes (including me) such as Casualty and Mid Term Break. The one that speaks to me as much as any of that though is:

The Early Purges

I was six when I first saw kittens drown.
Dan Taggart pitched them, 'the scraggy wee shits',
Into a bucket; a frail metal sound,

Soft paws scraping like mad. But their tiny din
Was soon soused. They were slung on the snout
Of the pump and the water pumped in.

'Sure, isn't it better for them now?' Dan said.
Like wet gloves they bobbed and shone till he sluiced
Them out on the dunghill, glossy and dead.

Suddenly frightened, for days I sadly hung
Round the yard, watching the three sogged remains
Turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung

Until I forgot them. But the fear came back
When Dan trapped big rats, snared rabbits, shot crows
Or, with a sickening tug, pulled old hens' necks.

Still, living displaces false sentiments
And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown
I just shrug, 'Bloody pups'. It makes sense:

'Prevention of cruelty' talk cuts ice in town
Where they consider death unnatural
But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.

31 Aug 13 - 08:40 AM (#3554711)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: GUEST,Lighter

The Dubliners said they learned "Five/Seven Drunken Nights" from Seamus Heaney in the early '60s.

Same Seamus?

31 Aug 13 - 09:37 AM (#3554719)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: Claire M


My parents collect cats; the newest one, Sid – lovely black cat w/ bright yellow eyes --, seems to have taken over my room.

That poem, which I remember having to study in-depth @ school, reminds me of a man I met @ Respite Care. He didn't seem to have many friends/talk much, so me being me I was chatting away. He told me he used to have to do what Dan does in the poem & didn't seem to get how upset I was. I never spoke to him again.

31 Aug 13 - 01:15 PM (#3554781)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: Lynn W

Three of my favourites are A Constable Calls, Follower and Mid Term break. Also

The Given Note

On the most westerly Blasket
In a dry-stone hut
He got this air out of the night.
Strange noises were heard
By others who followed, bits of a tune
Coming in on loud weather
Though nothing like melody.
He blamed their fingers and ear
As unpractised, their fiddling easy
For he had gone alone into the island
And brought back the whole thing.
The house throbbed like his full violin.
So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don't care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.
Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.

31 Aug 13 - 02:07 PM (#3554794)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: Kampervan

This is great thank you. Love 'The Given Note' and although 'Early Purges' is a bit brutal it is authentic and thought provoking.

Three people have suggested Beowulf, this is something that I would never have looked at in a million years because I suppose that it would be too difficult to just read and understand.

I've always thought that it was a poem that needed to be studied and explained in order to access it. Am I wrong?

I suppose that I should get a copy from the library and try it!

Keep em coming.

Thanks again


31 Aug 13 - 03:06 PM (#3554805)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: theleveller

Such a sad loss. His translation of Beowulf replaced Tolkein's as the definitive version. Totally inspirational. Apart from that, anything from Opened Ground and,of course, his transaltion of Sweeny Astray. Oh shit,just about everything he did was brilliant.

31 Aug 13 - 03:37 PM (#3554815)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: Marje

Thanks for the above examples, one and all. I came across "Mid Term Break" when my daughter studied it at school and was knocked out by it.
I'll paste it in here - as you read it, look at how he gradually draws you in and lets you see a little more in each line, but keeping the final details until the last line - in fact, the last word. Still gives me goosebumps.

Mid-Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o'clock our neighbors drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying--
He had always taken funerals in his stride--
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were 'sorry for my trouble,'
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

31 Aug 13 - 06:20 PM (#3554855)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: McGrath of Harlow

One that should be rememered are the verses he wrote in 1972 at the time of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry.

On a Wednesday morning early I took the road to Derry
Along Glenshane and Foreglen and the cold woods of Hillhead
A wet wind in the hedges and a dark cloud on the mountain
And flags like black frost mourning that the thirteen men were dead.

The Roe wept at Dungiven and the Foyle cried out to heaven
Burntollet's old wound opened and again the Bogside bled
By Shipkey Gate I shivered and by Lone Moor I enquired
Where I might find the coffins where the thirteen men lay dead.

My heart besieged by anger, my mind a gap of danger ,
I walked among their old haunts, the home ground where they bled,
And in the dirt lay justice like an acorn in the winter
Till its oak would sprout in Derry where the thirteen men lay dead.

Seamus sent it to Luke Kelly, and suggested the tune "The Boys of Mullaughawn", but Luke thought the tune was too slow, and never used it.

Twenty years later it came to light when Seamus sent it to the paper, and it was printed in the Guardian.

I put a tune to it, and I added a verse - well the original had a fourth verse Seamus didn't send to the paper, for reasons of his own. I don't imagine my verse was anything like his, but I wanted to take into account the time that had passed - and I echoed the line he put in a poem as a verdict of politics in the North "Whatever you say, say nothing."

Once more I went to Derry where so many now are buried
When all is said and done but still there's nothing to be said
And the blood runs in the Fountain and the numbers still are mounting
And there's dead beyond all counting since the thirteen men lay dead.

And I ended repeating the first verse, but with the last line changed to

And flags like black frost hanging forthe thirteen men laid dead

A bit cheeky changing and adding to the words of a Nobel laureate - but later Frank Harte said he sang it to Seamus and that he was quite pleased at his words getting sung, and he didn't mind the extra verse.

31 Aug 13 - 06:44 PM (#3554863)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: McGrath of Harlow

Incidentally I think Luke Kelly was wrong about The Boys of Mullaughbawn. And in fact when I heard it later it turned out the tune I'd put to the song was a ssort of impoverished version of that splendid tune, which I'd never heard. The tune is in the words...

31 Aug 13 - 11:24 PM (#3554908)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem

Postcript which they read on Radio 4.


01 Sep 13 - 01:29 AM (#3554916)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: Kampervan

MoH - Very brave,adding your own words to that poem, but, IMHO, I think that it works and certainly holds true to the sentiment of the original.

It's very moving and understated but no less powerful for that.

Mid Term Break appealed to me too, although having read it through once, when I came to read it aloud for a second time I found it difficult to speak the last line. I think that it perfectly echoes the feelings of bewilderment that would go through an adolescent's mind at a time like that.

Thanks for the postings.


01 Sep 13 - 07:48 PM (#3555189)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: McGrath of Harlow

One I love is "The Rainstick"

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice–rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter–drizzle, almost breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

It makes you hear it as if you heard it while reading it. As he says "listen to it now.'

01 Sep 13 - 07:53 PM (#3555190)
Subject: RE: Seamus Heaney - your favourite poem
From: MartinRyan

The Dubliners said they learned "Five/Seven Drunken Nights" from Seamus Heaney in the early '60s.

Joe Heaney/Seosaimh O Heanaigh , more likely? No relation - as mentioned in another thread!