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on February 25, 1999
Those of you who are already familiar with his poems will be delighted to learn of the publication of Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996, a bumper crop of Heaney's best work over a thirty year period, and a record of the writer's development from the tentative and introspective poems of Death of a Naturalist (1966) to the authoritative and visionary tonalities of middle age in Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996).
This hefty, 440-page volume gathers together a pruned-down version of each of the author's ten volumes of poetry, plus extracts from his verse play, The Cure at Troy, his translation of the Irish epic poem, Sweeney Astray, and his Nobel Prize lecture, "Crediting Poetry." In 1975, poet Robert Lowell dubbed Heaney "the greatest Irish poet since W.B.Yeats." This volume proves that claim, perhaps too hasty a judgement in 1975, to be fully justified.
One of the most appealing aspects of the early poetry is the dense, tactile language used to evoke scenes of nature on the family farm, often conveyed from the point of view of the small child, and the poems are full of a child's freshness of perception. Farmyard and barnyard, cows, bulls, rats, sheds, wells, rakes, ploughs, and pitchforks appeared in vivid detail in this rural poetic landscape, in which the speaker experienced his solitary epiphanies. Farm workers and rural artisans, including thatchers, ploughmen and even water diviners were transformed into artists in their own right, and as alter egos of the poet himself
In the 1970s, Heaney began to write more directly about the Irish landscape, particularly the marshy bogs, that became emblematic for him of the Irish national consciousness. Heaney imagined the bogland that contained ancient artifacts, bones, skeletons and preserved corpses as dark and magical repositories of the nation's memory, including its memory of violence and bloodshed. In North (1975) he published a series of memorable and moving "bog poems" that explored the parallels between bronze age human sacrifice in ancient Denmark and the killings in Northern Ireland at the time of writing. It is with this book that Heaney became known as the poet of the Northern Irish Troubles. In comparing ancient, pagan cultures with the murderous climate of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, he conveyed a bleak portrait of a province locked in an ancient conflict that was doomed to continue indefinitely. The next book, Field Work (1979) was notable for its many fine elegies, including several poignant elegies for friends and relations murdered in the Troubles. But this was also a book of blessings, including poems of pastoral peace, and marriage poems set in county Wicklow where Heaney had moved. One of Heaney's dominant strains is the elegiac, and he has continued to produce a fine sequence of elegies for his mother, "Clearances," in The Haw Lantern (1987) and for his father in Seeing Things (1991).
Seamus Heaney is widely admired for his sensuous evocation of a farmyard childhood in Northern Ireland in the 1940s, for his thoughtful and moving approach to the Northern Irish Troubles, conveying the perspectives of nationalist Roman Catholic culture, while avoiding didacticism and outright partisanship, for his fine elegies in which he registers the personal loss of those who were dear to him, and for his more recent, celebratory and visionary poetry. But the main point about him, as with all great poets, is not his subject matter, but the fact that he has enormous linguistic resources, hence the power to convey his experiences freshly and convincingly.
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VINE VOICEon April 18, 2000
Seamus Heaney is a master poet who connects nature, emotion, and even plot, in a brilliant and particularly Irish poetry. These poems are accessible to non-English majors. I read them out loud to my wife at night. They elicit a reaction that begins at emotional imagery, veers into thought, and ends up touching your soul. One of the immortal greats of the English language is writing and publishing now, and this book is indispensable.
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on April 12, 2001
Opened Ground is an excellent introduction to Heaney's poetry, taking the reader from his earliest expressions of anxiety over his chosen profession ("Digging" and "Poem") to his love for his native Ireland ("Annahorish" and "Broagh") and his anxiety over the political fate of his country ("Casualty" and "The Toome Road") to reflections on mortality in general (and therefore, naturally, on his own) ("An Afterwards" and "Squarings"). Of course, to claim that any of his poems are "about" any one thing is to perform an almost unpardonable act of reductionism -- they all take in a great breadth and depth of experiences and wisdom. While it is true that "An Afterwards" is in some sense about death, it is equally about poetry and the Faustian bargain poets sometimes must make, leaving family behind in the pursuit of beauty. This anxiety, too, recurrs throughout Heaney's work. To anyone who is even remotely interested in modern poetry, this is a great introduction to a great poet, and it belongs on your shelf.
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on September 28, 2002
Heaney is clearly one of the most important literary figures in the world. He is perhaps even the most important writer from Great Britain since Yeats. It's nice to know that an Irishman who speaks for all citizens of the world has been most deservedly honored with a Nobel Prize.
Heaney is a word-smith. For example, "The Forge" is a sonnet that embraces the scope of poetic creativity and power: "All I know is a door into the dark...."
Heaney's work is uncompromising and unparalleled in its depth. It can be justly compared to Milosz, or even a Yeats. Heaney is introspective, careful, and most importantly, sincere. Every word on the page counts; every word reverberates and shimmers with life, death, and modest negotations with an often hostile political landscape. His poetic vision is transcendental.
This anthology includes Heaney's Nobel Prize Speech: "Crediting Poetry," which is incredibly beautiful and thought-provoking. Some of my favorite poetic images are included here, involving blackberries, frogs, funerals, marital meditations, early morning military manuevers, potato peeling, and a mother ironing....
I highly recommend this anthology. It is beautiful and exciting; Heaney's verse will raise the hair on the back of your neck, as well as electrify your soul.
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on September 2, 2013
In poem after poem, Heaney's words seem... inevitable. He had the Irish gift --- the gift of glib --- but he didn't use words for self-glorification. As someone said, he saw the Nobel Prize (among friends, he spoke of "the N-word") as encouragement to do better.

Heaney was that rare event: a great writer, a great man. He taught. He mentored. He praised. He parented. And still did the internal work that led to a book of selected poems that topped 400 pages. "Seamus never had a sour moment, neither in person nor on paper," said the playwright Tom Stoppard. "You couldn't help loving him any more than you could help reading on from the first line."

The life, in brief: Born in Northern Ireland, in 1939, the eldest of nine children. (A younger brother, age four, was killed by a car. His poem about the death ends: "Wearing a poppy bruise on the left temple/ He lay in the four foot box as in a cot./ No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear./ A four foot box, a foot for every year.") He won a scholarship to a school that nourished him, earned a college degree in English, taught, married, wrote. In college, he said of his writing, "I was just kicking the ball around the penalty area, not trying to shoot at the goal. Then in 1962 the current began to flow."

The Heaney poems you may have seen quoted mostly describe a world as foreign to us as the moon, a rural world of lorries, peat, wells, animals and the heavy tread of the Church. As he describes it in his Nobel Prize speech:

" rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on..."

But don't make the mistake of thinking Heaney is as accessible as Robert Frost. Many poems, especially the later ones, read like stories or letters, but for the earlier ones, it would help if you have a command of myth and poetry. The through line: language. His delight in being at college is "exhilarated self-regard." About writing: "Cultivate a work-lust/ that imagines its haven like your hands at night/ dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast." A poem, he write, is "a ploughshare that turns time/ Up and over" --- like cutting peat. Because there's always a connection between where he's from and where he is now. As in "Digging," one of his most frequently quoted poems:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner's bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it.

"If you have the words," he said, "there's always a chance that you'll find the way."

Did he ever.
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on January 9, 2013
My son loves poetry so I took a chance that he would like this. I was just informed that he thought it was one of the best poetry books he has ever read. He is 28 and has been reading poetry for over a decade. I think I might get a copy for myself.
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on August 17, 2012
Seamus Heaney is one of the very greatest poets writing in English. Google "Limbo, Seamus Heaney" for a taste of his power. You can read a Billy Collins or a Ted Kooser poem, and not very closely at that, and you'll "get it." Heaney demands careful attention. But if you give him that, you'll be richly rewarded whether or not you know what assonance and trochaics are. Digest this very creditable selection and you'll want to rush to the individual volumes.
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on August 10, 2013
Who would not want to own this collection of Heaney's poems up to 1996. Poets today would wiith out a doubt name him the outstanding poet of the day.. If you are a lover of poetry, I think this is a must for your library. I bought it at Amazon.
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on February 8, 2001
I came to Heaney's work through his translation of Beowulf. The beuty with which he translated that Anglo-Saxon text prompted me to seek out more of the Nobel laureate's work. What I found in this collection amazed me. My primary area of study is medieval literature and I was pleasantly suprised to find that Heaney's poetry, IMO, offers a curious blend of modern and medieval sensibilities, particularly in the poems from "North". Beyond that, Heaney's poetry conveys the sense of sorrow and pain that permeates the present-day Northern Irish experience.
Clearly, this book's greatest asset is that it introduces you much of the poet's work in one sitting. However, I predict that once you read from this book you will go in search of even more of Heaney's beautiful poetry.
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on June 17, 2014
Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, left the world a better place. His death in 2013 was a blow to all who love his work. Opened Ground is a selection of some of his best poetry from 1966 - 1996. This is a volume that will stay by my bedside. It's a volume that should have a place of honor among the books of anyone who truly loves the craft.
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