Sep 21, 2013

Seamus Heaney, "Blackberry-Picking": the Language of Sensuous, Mortal Beauty

Here’s a response to the request for a poem from Seamus Heaney, who died August 30, 2013 and won the 1995 Nobel Prize, among many achievements. I haven't read much Heaney, but I’ve seen “Blackberry-Picking” before, so maybe it’s one of Heaney’s better-known works.
Sorry, no blackberries today

My first thought is that the poem is of a kind with Hopkins in its extravagant language and play with sounds. It also reminds me of Frost as it draws on homey, agrarian material. In both the linguistic richness and the emphasis on nature, I also hear echoes of Dylan Thomas. Of course, I don’t mean that Heaney is a plagiarist, but it’s interesting to consider how each of those poets was similar to and different from the other three. Jean Toomer's rich, early 20th Century, Georgia poems in Cane might also fit into the discussion. 
Cedar Waxwing, Berry Lover
The main strength of “Blackberry-Picking” is the way its language sometimes grows as saturated as the berries, especially in the sounds of words. The following ought to sate anyone’s need for words made thick and juicy by back vowels and hard consonants:

                                     glossy purple clot
       Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.

      Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it

                          on top big dark blobs burned
      Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
      With thorn pricks, our palms sticky

       A rat-grey fungus, glutting . . . 

Go ahead and try to hurry through “on top big dark blobs burned.” Each syllable is a word, and each syllable is stressed. The three p  sounds, along with b three times (bilabial monosyllables if you really care), the short o three times, and the guttural g and k simply cannot be rushed. If we try, we’ll gag. Heaney demands that we wallow in the juice of the berries, and he follows that with the shocking change in “a plate of eyes.” I hear fish eyes there, but whatever eyes those are, they undercut the sumptuous sounds that led up to them. Appetite and the fullness of physical beauty have a discomfiting flip side; the berries look back at us as we're about to gorge on them. 
Cooper's Hawk--Waxwing Eater?

Several times here I’ve pushed for the notion that, if a piece of writing is calling itself a poem, it should offer gifts along the way—images and sounds, pictures, music and ideas, that startle us out of laziness or complacency. These of course might be pungent or murderous as well as sensuous or gorgeous; but they are not indifferent, casual, generic. The poet has been moved into writing about something, and he should want his readers startled into a similar new awareness.

I’m not sure a boy’s tears about the “unfair” rotting of sensuous blackberries delivers a mind-altering shock, but it might. It’s an introduction to the death of mortal beauty.  I suspect I’ll never see that fruit again without thinking of this poem with its clot, knot, summer’s blood, dark blob, plate of eyes, and the killing fungus that’s not some namby-pamby, boring, non-comittal off-white, mushroom entity; no, it's an aggressive, hideous, “rat-grey” thing, eating up the beauty of what an Irish child beheld and loved.



Anonymous said...

Your photos are enchanting. They really are.

Isn't it funny that the writers I connect with or to usually are/were absolute shits or at leased horribly messed up in real life. And the ones who lived, at least to the best of an outsider's knowledge, honorable lives, don't seem to strike any of my chords.

I put Seamus Heaney in the latter category.

Banjo52 said...

I think you know, I hear you loud and clear. But I still haven't read enough Heaney to feel confident in what I think about him, and I did like this poem more as I kept looking into it.

Jean Spitzer said...

Enjoyed your words on this poem.
Like the photos, including the rodent.

Saw some rats on the sidewalk the other evening. They were making a dash for vegetation. Creepy, even though I know there are rats in the city.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, AH and Jean, about the photos. I've learned that if you just keep taking jillions of pics, a few will be good and might come in handy some day.

I think we might finally be rid of our rat(s) after a year of their coming and going in the back yard, but they've led me to an orgy of wondering why I find them so revolting. Fact is, I do--probably because I can envision them inside the house, maybe on my chest when I wake in the morning (heard one such story). That doesn't seem as likely with squirrels, chipmunks and birds, though it's technically possible. But I also wonder how much of my disgust results from nightmare legends about them.


Banjo52 said...

BTW, it might have been "rat-grey fungus" that kept me coming back to this poem.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the rat-grey was inspired. And you're right; we should keep plugging away at Heaney. For the lack of resonation, I blame myself.

Stickup Artist said...

Living in a harsh, hot, and dry place, I have to appreciate mental transportation to such a saturated, juicy place, even if it is a place in which rotting will quickly follow. It is the price to pay for such extravagance of life.

Banjo52 said...

AH, on the other hand, a couple of times I've run across the lists of Nobel and Pulitzer winners in literature, and some of the omissions AND inclusions are amazing. I'm not directing that at Heaney, just sayin' about prizes . . .

Stickup, I hear you, especially after seeing some of your fine photos of desert places. Were you born and raised out there?

John Evans said...

A vivid, pastoral piece:

Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills

Full of food and tastes and appetizing things.

The rats at the end . . . well, it's HIS poem, but he'd have done better leaving that out, seems to me.

Either way, a joy to read and turn over in the mind.

Lovers' Lane