This late August saw the last days of Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet and playwright who has died aged 74.
The first poem by Heaney I ever read was ‘Blackberry Picking’. In a chaotic classroom with the shame of our former teacher’s breakdown still hanging unspoken in the air, a nervous supply teacher gulped into his beard and read this poem to us:
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. 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
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
I can’t say that, at thirteen, I loved it. But it did seem hugely real to me – how could he recall something I had done myself, without having been standing there beside me? My best friend and I thrilled and laughed at the ‘rat-grey fungus’, whilst the pathos in the last couplet encapsulates the feeling I love most about autumn: the hope that the last warmth sun will stay forever and the soft sigh of inevitability that it will not.
Studying English at university, I came across Heaney again. This time, he threw me a life raft as I thrashed about in the turbulent seas of Old English Literature, trying to find the whale’s way through the waves of eths and thorns. His beautiful translation of Beowulf allowed me to enjoy the poem, rather than struggling through line after line of painful translation which threatened to rob it of any beauty or descriptive power intended by its initial, unknown, authors.
As I listened to Christopher Ricks’ ‘Many Voices: From the Regional’ lecture, Heaney poked me again. This time he used a proggling stick in The Redress of Poetry, hailing the vernacular poet John Clare as his poetic precursor, linked to him through language. Having grown up in Suffolk, with a paternal family that spoke Suffolk dialect at home, connecting the vernacular with supposed ‘literary’ language was an eye-opener – or perhaps more correctly, an ear-opener.
This, to me, is Seamus Heaney’s greatest legacy: to open ears to the possibilities of language, not shutting doors to literature and history and people.