100 Poems, by Seamus Heaney, Faber & Faber, 172 pp, £10.99, ISBN 978-0571347155
Longtime enthusiasts of Seamus Heaney’s work often have a tough time answering a simple question: “Which book of Heaney’s do you recommend?” Well. Tempting as it is to launch into a lecture on this poet’s remarkable variety and development through the decades, the questioner usually wants an entry point into the oeuvre that will be accessible and yet representative, a book that may awaken a hunger for more but whose content will satisfy one’s initial curiosity. For years, Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 was the best single-volume selection of Heaney’s work, allowing readers to progress from his first volume, Death of a Naturalist, through the controversial historico-political North to the visionary Seeing Things and just barely beyond to The Spirit Level, but then the selection stopped near the end of the century. Full disclosure: this was the book that introduced me to Heaney as an undergraduate, which the poet autographed as we both cursed the so-called perfect binding that was already cracking apart after a few months of admittedly heavy use. I continue to appreciate its volume-by-volume progression, which allows readers to situate each poem historically and encourages a developmental approach to the poet, who often thinks in terms of coherent volumes and not just singular poems.
100 Poems does not, alas, demarcate the boundaries of each volume. What it does, however, is so valuable that I fully expect it to become the standard text for teaching Heaney. In her brief “Family Note” which prefaces the book, his daughter Catherine mentions that her father had long planned to publish a “trim” selection of his poems. The book is indeed lightweight and manageable, and yet it covers the full span of the career, from Death of a Naturalist to Human Chain. It begins appropriately enough with “Digging”, a much-anthologised poem that can be taken as a modest ars poetica written by a poet who has just recognised his vocation, and ends with “In Time”, a poem published posthumously that addresses the poet’s granddaughter. This circular structure creates a sense of completion and a vision of the future, which is exactly appropriate to Heaney’s legacy, given his tendency to make each volume look forward to the next.
It also leaves a feeling of sadness: there have been several posthumous publications, including an extraordinary nearly complete translation of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, but now this unexpected trove of unpublished work may have been exhausted. 100 Poems marks a moment in which Heaney’s oeuvre has reached its final shape. It is now ready to start being packaged in discrete amounts, as the current volume does. This is not to cast any doubt on its quality but merely to register a moment in literary history that may inspire some sadness. As WH Auden wrote in memory of Yeats, the poet has now become his admirers, to be judged by foreign codes of conscience. The relative representativeness of each anthology too will be judged, and readers will inevitably disagree over which poem deserves inclusion and which does not. The “Family Note” makes clear that the family’s selection of poems may be unique, guided as it is by principles and preferences different from those of an editor or even Heaney himself. Besides the most celebrated poems, it includes Heaney’s favourite poems to read as well as those that “have special resonance” for his immediate family, such as poems centred on memories of times together and familiar objects from home. This may be why unexpected selections such as the early “Twice Shy” or “Night Drive” are here, as well as several poems suffused with Heaney’s love for his wife ‑ unconventionally funny and charming, “The Otter” and “The Skunk” are welcome inclusions. Enthusiasts will miss “North” and the metaphysical, luminous “Squarings” sequence from Seeing Things, although it is hard to say what could be removed in order to make room for them. Reading this selection, it is clear that there are hardly any poems in his oeuvre not worth rereading. Those who teach Heaney often have to choose between different categories of poem ‑ political poems, poems about rural life, poems about family, love poems, elegies, poems about poetry … one benefit of 100 Poems is that such divisions dissolve. Heaney’s numerous translations are not represented here, which is for the best. They form their own oeuvre, one that could readily furnish material for a future selection of work. There is more than enough material from Heaney’s twelve original poetry volumes to fill the book, which promises to become the definitive selection of Heaney’s poems.
Magdalena Kay teaches British and Irish literature at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, where she is an associate professor of English.