Audio

A First Book 50 Years Later

August 9, 2016

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry off the Shelf from the Poetry Foundation. I'm Curtis Fox. This week a first book 50 years later. During his lifetime, Seamus Heaney was one of the most famous poets writing in English. In 2009 when Heaney turned 70, two-thirds of the poetry collections sold in the UK were books by Seamus Heaney. Today in the podcast we're talking about his first book Death of a Naturalist, which came out 50 years ago in 1966. Tess Taylor is a poet who is also the on-air poetry reviewer for NPR's All Things Considered. She recently received a Fulbright to study and lecture in 2017 at Queens University, Belfast in Northern Ireland which, of course, was Seamus Heaney's native country. So, Tess, Heaney died in 2013 and he wrote quite a lot of poetry over the years, yet Death of a Naturalist, his first major book, still looms very large in the Heaney canon. Tell us about this slim book of 34 poems.

 

Tess Taylor: It's a really beautiful book to read in retrospect and it has some very, very stunning poems. I think what is special about it is to notice that the Death of a Naturalist is these pictures of rural life that are also Heaney's call to himself to become a poet. And so there's this beautiful play between nature and art, and also a sort of a portrait of the artist as a young man, or a portrait of the naturalist becoming an artist.

 

Curtis Fox: So, in 2016 Death of a Naturalist is seen as the announcement of a great career that's coming about, but it wasn't necessarily seen that way by his contemporaries back in 1966. How was the book reviewed back then?

 

Tess Taylor: It's funny, you know, because you asked me to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this book and I thought that I would go back and look up some of the reviews that accompanied the book in 1966/67.

 

Curtis Fox: Right.

 

Tess Taylor: What's interesting is that while Irish poets ... and the Irish Statesmen praised him really highly, his reviews in America were, sort of, lukewarm to mediocre. It was called, in the New York Times, “conventional, urbane, accomplished, predictable and inoffensive”. And then there's another review that calls it a “strange featureless first collection”. So, you know, while I look back at this book and see it as the announcement of a career that's gonna come as a place where Heaney actually lays down the shapes of what he's gonna do for the next 45 years, but it's funny to realize that in 1966 and 1967, the readers weren't necessarily hearing that or seeing what we see now.

 

Curtis Fox: So, I asked you to choose a few poems from Death of a Naturalist to play for listeners, and you chose the first poem in the book and the last poem. Let's start with the first. One of the most famous and most anthologized. It's called “Digging". Anything you wanna say about it before we hear it?

 

Tess Taylor: It's an ars poetica, which means a meditation on what poetry is gonna be and, like I said, it announces and prefigures the shape of Heaney's career that poetry for him is going to be a kind of archeology that brings him back into the past of his father, that brings him back into the past of his people, and that he is gonna approach poetry as a kind of tender unearthing of those common things that are near to him.

 

Curtis Fox: So, the poem was written over 50 years ago and we have a recording of Heaney reading it just a few years ago in 2012 in Chicago for a Poetry Day, a reading series put on by the Poetry Foundation. Here's the poem.

 

Seamus Heaney: Digging

 

Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

 

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down

 

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.

 

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

 

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.

 

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

 

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

 

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

 

Curtis Fox: So, Tess, you said it was an ars poetica and, in that light, he brings the art of poetry down to earth, literally and figuratively. He's not looking up into the bright airy sky. He's going to get down and dirty in this book.

 

Tess Taylor: He's gonna get down and dirty.

 

Curtis Fox: And there's a modesty about that, which means that there's a labor ahead of him as a poet. He's gonna have to dig. He's gonna have to find out what's there. He doesn't know what's there.

 

Tess Taylor: Yeah. He doesn't but, I mean, he keeps doing it and, you know, interestingly this figure of going down to come up and going down to come up just continues in the work. And even recently we've had this wonderful gift of the translation of it, and he had Book 6 that was in his computer and it was discovered, or, you know-

 

Curtis Fox: By his daughter, I heard. Yeah.

 

Tess Taylor: By his daughter, and published posthumously. The thing that's so remarkable about that is that's actually the figure of Aeneas going down to the Underworld, which is what Heaney has been doing for 50 years-

 

Curtis Fox: Yeah.

 

Tess Taylor:… you know, and so, I think what sticks with me, sort of, as a crafts person is, you know, which of the poets that we know would be able to name their project so concisely and clearly from the first poem and, kind of, there's a way in which the art of transmitting his intentions clearly is part of his art. It's that the poems themselves are wonderful, but also that they feel of a piece and of a project in a way that makes them resound against each other.

 

Curtis Fox:     Isn't there also a little defensiveness in the poem?

 

Seamus Heaney: But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

 

Curtis Fox: That's not true. He could get out there. He could dig like his father and his grandfather before him if he wanted to, couldn't he? So-

 

Tess Taylor: Seamus get a spade. You could just get one. They sell them at the store. Probably your father has one, right?

 

Curtis Fox: He could probably learn-

 

Tess Taylor: What's your problem?

 

Curtis Fox: Yeah. I mean-

 

Tess Taylor: Get a spade.

 

Curtis Fox: That's a bit of a rhetorical plora on his part, isn't it?

 

Tess Taylor: Well, I think probably more important than the spade is the gun.

 

Seamus Heaney: Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

 

Tess Taylor: And I think that's a setting out of intention about where his project is gonna be and, of course, you know, it is an interesting time ... I mean, we're living through a political moment right now, and all the poets I know are wringing their hands about the question of is poetry enough, is poetry the right response to the civic unrest that we're living through? So, I think that we can be compassionate about that kind of defensiveness. And then I think, also, the part of the book that I was talking about when he's saying that it's the 'Death of a Naturalist', he's really saying that he believes ultimately he's come round on the side of some kind of artifice. And I think that that's like this ambivalent and guilty decision, I mean, that he ... It is. There's a real ambivalence about that. If that was, you know, an utterly settled kind of thing in anyone's life, I don't think art would be as interesting as it is. So, he's gonna be the person who's recording the sound of the churning, you know? He's gonna be the person that's recording the sound of the well. He's gonna be the person recording the view of the cow. But he's not necessarily out there farming, and that is a kind of a break and departure and some kind of ... I don't think the poems could be as interesting or as true if there wasn't sort of an ambivalent longing in that.

 

Curtis Fox: He's also claiming, I think, in the poem a kind of laborist nobility for the writing of poems.

 

Seamus Heaney: Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down

 

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.

 

Curtis Fox: It's not easy to dig up the turf. It's real labor, and he's suggesting that it's also real labor to write poems.

 

Tess Taylor: Yes. I mean, I was struck actually as we were listening to that. The recording of that was just the way that his voice fell on digging, digging. Making us consider what that word really means. But, I mean, that's a kind of a piece ... You know, you think of James Joyce saying that Stephen Dedalus “has to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race”, you know. It's not like he gets to glue it together or something. He has to forge it, and I think that that notion that this assemblage of the poetry as a kind of a great and heavy work, I think that's part of a tradition as well.

 

Curtis Fox: Let's go to the second poem he chose, which is the last poem in Death of a Naturalist. It's called “Personal Helicon", and Mount Helicon, I had to look this up, Mount Helicon is in Greece and there are two mountain springs that were sacred to the Muses located there, according to Greek Mythology. So, Tess, the title is signalling to us that this is about the springs of his, Seamus Heaney's, poetry, is it not?

 

Tess Taylor: Right. This is about Seamus Heaney's poetry but, of course, I'd just like to point out his springs are not in Greece, they're not in some exalted location. They are the shut up wells of his backyard.

 

Curtis Fox: Yeah. Very humble. It's nothing glamorous and glory-

 

Tess Taylor: Right. And I think that's really important to understand that he's continually making that gesture. And it might be so beautiful that it doesn't surprise us but, in fact, it is kind of, you know, surprising.

 

Curtis Fox: Well, let's hear the poem. Here's Seamus Heaney reading “Personal Helicon”.

 

Seamus Heaney: As a child, they could not keep me from wells

And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.

I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells

Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

 

 

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.

I savoured the rich crash when a bucket

Plummeted down at the end of a rope.

So deep you saw no reflection in it.

 

 

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch

Fructified like any aquarium.

When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch

A white face hovered over the bottom.

 

 

Others had echoes, gave back your own call

With a clean new music in it. And one

Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

 

 

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

 

Curtis Fox: Here we are looking into the ground again. Not digging this time but looking into holes in the ground with water and muck at the bottom of them.

 

Tess Taylor: And rats. There's always ... There's a lot of rats in this book. I went back through and I thought, “You know, there's a lot of rats in this book”.

 

Curtis Fox: It's a very surprising rat that appears in this poem too because you don't expect that at the bottom of a well, and it's-

 

Tess Taylor: Yeah. He's “scaresome".

 

Seamus Heaney: Others had echoes, gave back your own call

With a clean new music in it. And one

Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

 

Curtis Fox: Tess, the looking into the depths is thrilling, but also terribly frightening and, occasionally, disgusting.

 

Tess Taylor: And that kind of range of emotion. And, again, we are going to go down with him

for, you know, for 44 years into a bunch of different kinds of holes.

 

Curtis Fox: Yeah.

 

Tess Taylor: We're gonna go down and see the archeological bodies; we're gonna see an elk's skeleton; we're gonna see butter that the peat has preserved for a hundred years; we're gonna see Aeneas down in the Underworld. So, this figure of the poet is kind of going down and harvesting deep, deep down in the peaty soil and bringing up ... That's just gonna be one of his central metaphors.

 

Curtis Fox: Let's think a bit about the form. This is a more traditional poem that's in rhyming quatrains with mostly slanter off rhymes actually, but what else can you tell us about the sound of this poem, which is just so extraordinary?

 

Tess Taylor: Well, I guess what's interesting is that you can say that and you can see it on the page, but when you hear Heaney read it in his voice, you don't always hear it. It sounds more conversational. And then, of course, the slant of the rhymes to an American ear is different than the slant of the rhymes in the voice that Heaney is gonna read the poems. So, there's something sort of slippery about the sound of the language that's also really fascinating in that dance, and then, I think, that Heaney is always self-consciously playing with ... He's playing with the caressing the language as he hears it and kind of matching up what the English spelled rhymes look like on the page.

 

Seamus Heaney: Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

 

Curtis Fox: Now if that's not a beautiful ending to a poem, I don't know what is.

 

Tess Taylor: “I rhyme / to see myself, to set the darkness echoing”. And there you have it. You

have the presence of sound; you have the Ars Poetica; you have this question of sounding that is gonna come back in his poetry later. He'll say that he moves by sound and soundings. This intimate relationship with language and sound. I mean, the book is, I'll be honest, you know, not every poem in it, I think, might have lasted for 50 years if the whole thing hadn't come together so beautifully. But it's framed by these Ars Poetica, so the first one that we read was the first poem and this is the last poem of the book, and between these frames Heaney is setting out this really monumental project that he's gonna continue working at, digging at for 44 years.

 

Curtis Fox: Tess, thanks so much.

 

Tess Taylor: Thank you. This has been terrific fun.

 

Curtis Fox: You can read poems by Seamus Heaney and by Tess Taylor on our website. Tess Taylor's latest book is Work & Days from Red Hen Press. As always, let us know what you think of this podcast. Email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org. Also, let your friends know what you thought of it on social media. The podcast is easy to link to on SoundCloud. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off the Shelf, I'm Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

Looking at Seamus Heaney's debut, Death of a Naturalist

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