Book review in one tweet
These poems--Hey wait, don't walk away, poetry is good! Seriously. I'm not even kidding. #hello?
I had intended to put up a review of C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed today, when I noticed an odd number of Seamus Heaney quotes on Twitter and found that he had passed away. (There is probably a whole essay in that sequence of events somewhere, but not one I want to write today.)
I suspect a lot of people reading this have never heard of Seamus Heaney, or read a single poem of his, and so I'm reviewing my favorite of his collections here, just to convince you that he's worth your time.
About five years ago I was living in Oxford, studying at Pembroke College, and I was completely miserable. I had very few friends, hated the food, and couldn't watch any baseball games. I stayed up many late nights watching old Bulls games on Youtube and the same twenty or so Flight of the Conchords clips. A significant portion of my day was dedicated to following competitive DoTA. One time I was shooting baskets in the park, and I literally wept aloud because a stray dog came up and licked my hand. Add several more pathetic stories to those; you'll probably come up with something close.
In the midst of this homesickness, I was also reading a thousand pages or so per week and writing a bunch of essays. My previous two terms had been spent wading through a massive number of Victorian novels, and so for my final term I took a chance on a course about a Nobel winning Irish poet I'd never heard of before, Seamus Heaney.
I won't over exaggerate, and say that he "changed my life" or anything like that. I was still pretty miserable most of the time. But there were moments reading Heaney when it felt like the top of my head was coming off, and I was seeing the world in a completely different way. And I was seeing words in a totally new way as well. He's one of those writers that make you feel horrible about being a writer, because how could you possibly ever come up with something as beautiful as that?
Electric Light was my favorite of his collections, poems touching on his childhood, the rural electrification of his Irish home, Shakespeare, Virgil, and getting a new suit, among other things. My favorite is "The Fragment," probably not one of his "best" poems by any critical analysis, but I don't care a fig for that and neither should you.
'Light came from the east,' he sang,
'Bright guarantee of God, and the waves went quiet.
I could see the 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 and last line of any poem
Where the poem begins and ends?'
Isn't that freaking great? Rest in peace, S.H.
7 wizard staffs (out of 10)
English nerds especially will appreciate the depth of language Heaney uses, the way every word seems to drip and hum with real life. I recommend waiting for a rainy day.
6 cold, frosty beers (out of 10)
Poetry tends to scare people away pretty quickly (a fact I blame entirely on people who talk about poetry), but Heaney is basically the Irish Robert Frost. I won't say that you'll love every poem of his, but if you read a whole collection, I guarantee there will be at least one that will stay with you for a long time. A good poem is a lifelong blessing.
If you like Electric Light, Jordan Jeffers recommends Opened Ground, Heaney's much larger collection of work from 1966 - 1996. Feel free to give him electronic encouragement via the little Facebook and Twitter buttons below. To Jordan, that is, not to Seamus Heaney. It means more to him than you might think.