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Blackberry-picking -- Seamus Heaney

Guest poem submitted by Aamir Ansari:
(Poem #934) Blackberry-picking
 Late August, given heavy rain and sun
 For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
 At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
 Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
 You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
 Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
 Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
 Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
 Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
 Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
 Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
 We trekked and picked until the cans were full
 Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
 With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
 Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
 With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
 We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
 But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
 A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
 The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
 The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
 I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
 That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
 Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
-- Seamus Heaney
In a lecture given to students at Oxford University, Seamus Heaney compared
the writing of poetry to the creation of a labyrinth, one that mirrors the
gruesome contortions our own world assumes at times. The difference is,
however, that the poet's labyrinth, the poem, has the power to restore us,
to reset the balance.

Heaney displays those restorative powers wonderfully in this poem. The
arrival of joy and the subsequent convulsive preparations to capture every
last drop of it ("...with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots") are honest to the
rich sensations of childhood experience. The poem itself is laden with
strange rich fruit, sweet clammy experience ready to be tasted and stored.
This, finally, is art true to life.


[Minstrels Links]

Poems by Seamus Heaney:
Poem #61, Song
Poem #883, Personal Helicon
Poem #934, Blackberry-picking

Poems on related topics:
Poem #827, Strawberries -- Edwin Morgan
Poem #274, This Is Just To Say  -- William Carlos Williams
Poem #377, Loveliest of trees, the cherry now  -- A. E. Housman
Poem #430, Wild Asters  -- Sara Teasdale
Poem #417, Thistles  -- Ted Hughes
Poem #63, Daffodils  -- William Wordsworth

623 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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Deragon Michael said...

Aamir speaks as though poetry in general doesn't actually speak of real
life..."This, finally, is art true to life". Poetry is life...and life is
nothing but fiction, and this poem too reflects that idealism we all strap
onto our souls... beautiful indeed, but no more true to life than the very
notion of poetry itself, which is life to begin with. Insanity is in the
air... m

Frank O'Shea said...

Heaney is an acquired taste. He seems to deliberately distort metre and
distrust rhyme - "sweet - in it", "lust for - hunger" in today's example.
It helps a great deal if one has read Patrick Kavanagh: same part of
Ireland, clay and soil, small rural concerns.

This is a beautiful poem, simple and direct. How many poets would notice
the way that wet grass will bleach shoe leather? And that young people
would ignore this. And the tinkling of slightly harder berries in the
bottom of a can. Everything in this poem I did as a child. I couldn't say
that about the great heroic Victorian poets.

With this I attach one of Heaney's finest pieces, taken from the poem
"Whatever you say, say nothing." It is eerily apt for what is happening in
that part of the world even as I write this. The extraordinary thing is
that the poem was written in 1975. I don't know what the situation is with
regard to copyright. Incidentally, the phrase 'proved upon their pulses' in
the fourth verse is a reference to some other poem by another poet, but I
can't place it. Help

Keep up the good work.

Frank O'Shea

from Whatever You Say Say Nothmig

I'm writing this just after an encounter
With an English journalist in search of 'views
On the Irish thing'. I'm back in winter
Quarters where bad news is no longer news,

Where media-men and stringers sniff and point,
Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads
Litter the hotels. The times are out of joint
But I incline as much to rosary beads

As to the jottings and analyses
Of politicians and newspapermen
Who've scribbled down the long campaign from gas
And protest to gelignite and sten,

Who proved upon their pulses 'escalate',
'Backlash' and 'crack down', 'the provisional wing’,
'Polarization' and 'long-standing hate'.
Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing,

Expertly civil tongued with civil neighbours
On the high wires of first wireless reports,
Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours
Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts:

'Oh, it's disgraceful, surely, I agree.'
'Where’s it going to end.’ ‘It’s getting worse.’
‘They’re murderers.' 'Internment, understandably …’
The 'voice of sanity' is getting hoarse.

‘Religion's never mentioned here,' of course.
‘You know them by their eyes,' and hold your tongue.
‘One side's as bad as the other,' never worse.
Christ, it's near time that some small leak was sprung

In the great dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade
I am incapable. The famous

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the 'wee six' I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuverings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,

Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
Where half of us, as in a wooden horse
Were cabin'd and confined like wily Greeks,
Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.

This morning from a dewy motorway
I saw the new camp for the internees:
A bomb had left a crater of fresh clay
In the roadside, and over in the trees

Machine-gun posts defined a real stockade.
There was that white mist you get on a low ground
And it was deja-vu, some film made
Of Stalag 17, a bad dream with no sound.

Is there a life before death? That's chalked up
In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,
Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,
We hug our little destiny again.

Seamus Heaney

Lynne said...

hello there
I just analysed this poem for my 1st year English UNI journal
and I did not think it was merely a representation of innocence
as one commenter said..?
do you agree?
best Lynne
I wrote
At first reading the poem ³Blackberry-Picking² by Seamus Heaney, seems a
naïve description of innocent reminiscences of a small child, who joyfully
recalls the wonder and excitement of the annual blackberry forage. However,
there lurks behind the vividness of this picture of youth, a horror and
repugnance that comes to life through only one word. This word that at first
sighting seems out of place, but which brings a poetic realisation of
unimagined hidden depths. In this short, three stanza, compactly worded poem
is seen a duality of life and death, fidelity and moral degradation.
The play of words in this Irish poem titled ³Blackberry-Picking² hangs heavy
with the fecundity of late August evoked with the anticipation of blackberry
hunt with all its good and bad points. The Œgood¹ parts to the hunt were the
collection of the fruit; onomatopoeia described the milk-can¹s ³tinkling
bottom² and the metaphor ³lust for picking² contains subdued eroticism. The
anticipation of the flavours tasted explained by ³blackberries would ripen²,
³that hunger sent us out² and ³each year I hoped they¹d keep². The obvious
delight in the devouring of the fruit till one is sated: shown in ³its flesh
was sweet², ³leaving stains upon the tongue², then ³once off the bush², ³we
hoarded the fresh berries² carrying the collected fruit home. The Œbad¹
parts of the hunt was the descriptive death of the black fruit as ³the fresh
fruit would turn sour² and ferment, grow fungus and Œrot¹ .. then the
youngster complains ²it wasn¹t fair.. I felt like crying². The innocent
child on the surface of the poem, hopes each year for this cycle of death to
change. But this never did; the rot always set in. This brings to mind the
cycles of life, natural seasonal changes that cannot be stopped; emphasising
the reality of life and death that comes to all people and life eventually.

Angela Watson said...

just to let you know, the line 'who proved upon their pulses...' in Whatever You Say Say Nothing' Is an allusion to Keats;

"Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon their pulses: we read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same steps as the author"

it comes from a letter see

Angela W.

DGowans03 said...

boring boring boring boring boring boring boring boring

Shelley Cardiel said...

I liked how it described the way it tasted and looked on your tongue and
face. Also how it said people getting stuck in the thron bushes. The end was
good describing that bad one that you'll usually get.


Robert Weber said...

This poem has very good descriptive words. I liked "glossy purple clot" and
"the red ones inked up". It seems like it is just going back on childhood
and the innocence of it but I think it goes deeper than that. It might be a
metaphor for death because the blackberry starts out small and over time
gets larger and reaches the peak of its life but then it starts to degrade
and get old and then it turns moldy and dies.


Kay Udeschini said...

This poem was charming, though at the same time, strangely upsetting. So
much of the poem is a description the excitement and joy of picking
delicious berries in the middle of summer. The author uses this to his
advantage, of course, building up the excitement of the reader. And then,
that euphoria is ripped away. The berries have gone bad. They cannot hold it
and treasure it the way they long to. They are only good for so long. A very
good representation, I think.


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