The news of Seamus Heaney’s death recently has put me in the frame of mind to think about poetry.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.
Beowulf: A new verse translation
I think that quote from his great translation of Beowulf is a fitting way to mark the passing of a great poet. To be honest though, with the exception of Beowulf, Seamus Heaney is not a poet I particularly engaged with. His interests were not mine and his writing felt distant. However, he has, along with Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy, made British and Northern Irish poetry relevant in the twenty-first century.
Because of this news, I’ve been thinking about what poetry means to me and what place it has in my reading life. In the year or so that I have been writing the Chestnut Book Blog, I don’t think I have written a single post about poetry, if you ignore Shakespeare (difficult for me, but let’s do it on this occasion!). Until last night, I also hadn’t read any poetry for a long time (unless you count the poems on the tube!), but at about 9pm I pulled down my more modern favourites and took a trip down memory lane. I remembered that I have poems that evoke specific times in my life very strongly. Some people have songs that do that I suppose, but I have more poems!
The first modern poet I fell in love with was Carol Ann Duffy, and specifically her Mean Time collection. I was in my mid to late teens when I first read these poems and their use of childhood memories and life’s complexities really spoke to me at the time. The rage of Havisham, the sadness of Mean Time and the nostalgia of Before You Were Mine all showed me that poetry could express things in a way no other medium could. They taught me that each word should work hard for its place in a piece and that brevity is an art. I suppose in the simplest way, they taught me that my emotions could be linked to evocative words, rather than just being mute – I think until then I was a bit of a brooder!
Most importantly, it was Duffy’s Away and See that told me to be brave and own my choices as I left home and went to university. This is a poem that is forever linked to that time in my life for me and I hope Duffy wouldn’t mind me reproducing it here for you.
Away and See
Away and see an ocean suck at a boiled sun
and say to someone things I’d blush even to dream.
Slip off your dress in a high room over the harbour.
Write to me soon.
New fruits sing on the flip side of night in a market
of language, light, a tune from the chapel nearby
stopping you dead, the peach in your hand respiring.
Taste it for me.
Away and see the things that words give name to, the flight
of syllables, wingspan stretching to a noun. Test words
wherever they live; listen, touch, smell, believe.
Spell them with love.
Skedaddle. Somebody chaps at the door at the year’s end,
Away and see who it is. Let in the new, the vivid,
horror and pity, passion, the stranger holding the future.
Ask him his name.
Nothing’s the same as anything else. Away and see
for yourself. Walk. Fly. Take a boat till land reappears,
altered forever, ringing its bells, alive. Go on, G’on, Gon.
Away and see.
I suppose this poem felt like past women (like me) talking (to me). I have so many opportunities that were denied to them and I am thankful for that. I went to university and have had a wonderful education. I can have a fulfilling job. I can vote and live an independent life full of my own choices. This poem says to me that I should go and experience my life fully in honour of them and for myself.
Do you have poems that remind you of particular times in your life?