Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Seamus Heaney
Frogmarch 2002 - Whitby
tobyaw
Back in 1987–88, I did a GCSE in English Literature. One of the authors we studied was Seamus Heaney, and the experience served to put me off poetry for life.

I found his use of language to be obtuse. The poems had little to say, and what they did say seemed repetitious, and lacked structure and rhythm. There were jarring descriptions, making the poems unnecessarily difficult to read. I found them hard to understand when read to myself, and hard to get my tongue around when read aloud. A poem like “Digging” reads like a piece of bad prose. We were told that this was great poetry, but I totally failed to understand what was good about it.

Mind you, this is a 41-year-old looking back on what his 15-year-old self thought of Seamus Heaney, so it probably isn’t a fair summing up.

  • 1
Back in 1987–88, I did a GCSE in English Literature. One of the authors we studied was Seamus Heaney, and the experience served to put me off poetry for life.
There are many topics we disagree vehemently on, but this is not one of them. I had to study some of Seamus Heaney's poetry for GCSE in 1988-1989 and just didn't get it - I didn't understand what was great about it, I didn't understand what it was for, and I certainly didn't understand what I was supposed to be doing with it. In that respect, it was pretty much in line with my general experience of GCSE English Literature.

It's possible we had the same teacher: I was in PFC's set, and really didn't get along with him at all. I don't know why - many others found him a friendly and inspiring teacher, but my recollection is that he disliked me from the start, and as a result I got turned off literature for years, and lost my enjoyment of reading for a while too.

But I know lots of splendid people who rate Heaney very highly (indeed, I'm married to one) so maybe it's time to give him another go. I'm a different person now than I was 25 years ago, so maybe I'll get more out of his poetry now than I did then.

I wonder whether many of those who rate him highly actually read and appreciate his work, or whether they just like the idea of Seamus Heaney.

Having read several of his poems over the weekend, I’m not going to be revising my opinion.

I wonder whether many of those who rate him highly actually read and appreciate his work, or whether they just like the idea of Seamus Heaney.

I've certainly met some people over the years who loudly proclaimed their fondness for a particular work of art, literature or music, not because they actually liked it, but because they wanted to be seen as educated and refined people. But I don't usually find superficial people like that very interesting to talk to, so I tend to avoid them. Of my friends who say they like Seamus Heaney's poetry, I'm entirely confident that all of them genuinely do admire and appreciate it, because none of them are the sort of people who would pretend to if they didn't.

So, on that basis I'm inclined to give Heaney another go. It's entirely possible that I still won't like his poetry, but that's ok because everyone responds to art in a different way and not everyone can or should like everything.

I've got friends who really like Mahler or Shostakovich, and while I can certainly appreciate those composers' merit on a technical level, their music doesn't really do anything for me on a personal, subjective level, certainly not when compared to, say, Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis or Steve Reich's Six Marimbas. Equally, there are people who find much of Bach's work clinical exercises in abstraction, can't be doing with Vaughan Williams, and just don't see the point in Reich or Glass' repetitive minimalism, but find that, say, late-1990s drum and bass contains a wealth of colour and innovation that speaks to them in a way that other forms of music don't.

This isn't to say there's no such thing as bad poetry, art, literature or music - on the contrary there's a distressing amount of it out there. But enough people rate Heaney's work highly that surely they can't all be making it up in order to look clever, so there's probably something in it, even if that something doesn't appeal to you (which it apparently doesn't) or me (which it didn't use to, and might still not).

What I didn't really get for years is that appreciation of art isn't a well-defined question with a single valid answer. You are entirely at liberty to conclude that Seamus Heaney's work is rubbish, and others are within their rights to think it's brilliant - and you'd all be right.

I sat the same syllabus as you, and I loved the poems even then, before I loved the idea of a poet. I also adored the War Poetry and Ted Hughes works we did at the same time, and I went on to make Wilfred Owen's poetry a large part of my MA in English.

I think Heaney gives us a divisive experience, certainly, which not all poets do, but I am firmly on the side of "the man was a genius". I've heard him read much of his poetry aloud in person, I've been "forced" to study it and I've studied it by choice, and I still like it as much as the day I first read 'Digging'.

Is he the guy who did the god-awful one about watching his father ploughing?

Yep, that brought a shudder, remember having to pore over each line of that thing.

The only poem I can remember from school I learnt in history class:

http://www.poetsforum.com/forum/forum.pl?noframes;read=1704

Could not have told you who it was by, not even sure that was covered by the teacher. But I liked it and committed it to memory.

Looks like it was part of a set: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kings-Queens-England-Eleanor-Farjeon/dp/0712358501/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1378113117&sr=8-3&keywords=Eleanor+Farjeon

The difference was in history we got to enjoy the poem, not tear it apart working out why the author had used BONG, instead of CLANG.

(Deleted comment)
  • 1
?

Log in

No account? Create an account