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Sean O'Hagan: 'Field Work spoke of a world I knew and had just left behind'


How Seamus Heaney's descriptions of life during the Troubles called to mind raw personal experience

I'd just started studying for an English degree in London in 1979 when Seamus Heaney's Field Work was published. It was the first book of his I bought. Grappling with Chaucer and Greek tragedy, and doggedly reading one big Victorian novel after another, that small book of contemporary poetry was both a breathing space and a reminder of home. I carried it around with me for months.

Field Work spoke of a world I knew and had just left behind, physically if not emotionally or psychologically. I was initially taken by the thrust of The Toome Road, with its opening description of British soldiers in armoured cars "warbling along on powerful tyres, all camouflaged with broken alder branches", and taken aback by the line "How long were they approaching down my roads/ As if they owned them?" This was poetry I could connect with on several levels, about strange things I had seen with my own eyes and was now seeing through his. One poem, After a Killing, brought back to me a summer's evening when, while walking home from town with some friends, we suddenly came upon three young local men with guns waiting by an old railway bridge near the ring road in Armagh. Heaney describes a similar moment and summons up its ominous historical and contemporary resonances: "There they were, as if our memory hatched them,/ As if the unquiet founders walked again:/ Two young men with rifles on a hill,/ Profane and bracing as their instruments."

More powerful still were the elegies, The Strand at Lough Beg, written in memory of his recently murdered cousin, Colum McCartney, and Casualty, about a neighbour "blown to bits/ Out drinking in a curfew/ Others obeyed, three nights/ After they shot/ The thirteen men in Derry…" From Field Work I moved on to North, published in 1975, and discovered more poems that spoke to me of where I came from and who I was: Funeral Rites, The Ministry of Fear, Summer 1969, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing and Punishment. The latter, with its evocation of the tarring and feathering of a "little adulteress", seemed to say so much about the conflicts of belonging generated by the bigger conflict that was the Troubles. And it ended on a self-questioning, even self-accusatory note, Heaney seemingly numbering himself among those "who would connive/ in civilized outrage/ yet understand the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge".

These were brave poems, some written from personal experience. That he wrote Field Work in Wicklow, rather than Belfast and Derry, rubbed some Northern Irish Republicans up the wrong way, but I was always baffled by the accusations that Heaney somehow avoided the Troubles as subject matter. He avoided taking sides, or being labelled. ("My passport's green," he famously wrote after being included in a compilation of British poetry, "No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast the Queen.")

I love many of his poems, but those troubled Troubles poems can still transport me to another time and place that now seems so long ago but still seems raw and vivid. He once said: "You deal with public crisis… by making your own imagery and your own terrain take the colour of it." He certainly did that, brilliantly and surefootedly.

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