Seamus Heaney – Death of a Naturalist
My 7th book of 20 Books of Summer, but reviewed out of order because I wanted to wait until after Book Group. Last month, we started on our journey through some of the BigJubilee Reads, one from each decade of the Queen’s reign from all around the Commonwealth. After discounting books several of us had read, we did a random pick of the remaining titles from 1962-72 and Seamus Heaney came out of the hat with his debut book of poems from 1966.
Poetry isn’t the easiest kind of literature for book group discussion. We’ve only ever read one other poetry book before which was Heaney’s Beowulf translation – which is a different animal.
We began with a discussion of the best way to approach poetry. Since I’ve begun to appreciate poetry more (mostly since I read the wonderful primer The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt, which I recommended to our group), I’ve developed a technique of a quick read-through to get an idea of themes and forms, followed by a second much deeper read when I may re-read individual poems a few times.
This debut collection is very much rooted in Heaney’s upbringing on the farm, the cycle of the seasons and the circle of life – the latter being responsible for ‘The Death of a Naturalist’ in the title poem, when the transformation from tadpoles to frogs overwhelms the young observer. A favourite of mine has long been ‘Blackberry-Picking’, the joy of the first one popped in the mouth, ‘a glossy purple clot’, and the disappointment when the berries turn so quickly
It wasn’t fair / That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. / Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew thy would not.
Sometimes, the cycle of life is cut short, notably in ‘The Early Purges’ in which he says. ‘I was six when I first saw kittens drown.’ Not a poem for animal lovers, yet there is a certain truth about those times when an excess of kits made them pests in the farmer’s eyes.
One of the most profound poems in this collection is one of his most celebrated. ‘Mid-Term Break’. In it, the author tells of being brought back from school early to a house full of sadness and tears. It’s obvious that someone has died, but it’s not until the last, devastating line that you discover who. Go and read the whole thing for yourself here.
As we progress through the collection, the observations in the poems begin to turn from a rural youth to making a place in the world and looking at the people in it. Some are more light-hearted, such as ‘Twice Shy’ which tells of the excitement of first love. We also loved the metaphor in ‘Scaffolding’ which looks at the relationship revealed like a building once the scaffolding comes down. ‘Docker’ was rather more grim:
He sits, strong and blunt as a Celtic cross, / Clearly used to silence and an armchair: / Tonight the wife and children will be quiet / At slammed door and smoker’s cough in the hall.
Although we vowed only to tackle poetry in book group once in a blue moon, we did have an excellent discussion which even got on to TS Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’. (Finished in a Margate bus shelter while Eliot was convalescing after a breakdown – See the wonderful book All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook for more on that subject!) Seamus Heaney’s accessibility, straightforward form, descriptive prowess, and the strong themes of this collection which is not full of classical references, made it a good choice for a group with different levels of engagement with poetry.
Does your book group ever read poetry? If not, why not give it a go?
Source: Own copy. Faber paperback, 44 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.