Seamus Heaney is arguably the best poet who's writing in the English language today. He's received more honors and awards for his work than we care to count, including the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. If poetry writing was an Olympic event, he'd win gold.
A lot of critics and poetry people consider Heaney the finest poet since W.B. Yeats. The comparison makes a lot of sense. Not only is he sometimes similar stylistically to Yeats, but Heaney also seems to have as great an influence on poetry today as Yeats did during his time. We love to compare generations of greats, don't we? LeBron James is this generation's Michael Jordan, Jay-Z is the new Biggie, and so on. If Yeats had a great-grandson of poetry, it would have to be Heaney.
Heaney was born and raised in Northern Ireland – more specifically, in rural County Derry. He had working-class parents and spent his early years on the family farm (called Mossbawm), where he began his education. By his teen years, Heaney was sent away to boarding school and eventually ended up at Queens University in Belfast, a much bigger, much more metropolitan place than his hometown. Since then, he has lived and taught all over Northern Ireland and England, as well as in a few U.S. cities.
Not only is Heaney the greatest thing since sliced bread as far as poetry goes, he's also written tons of prose (a lot of it about poetry), two plays, and a healthy handful of translations. Apparently fourteen major collections of poetry weren't quite enough for the guy! He's a pretty busy bee. We wouldn't be surprised to find that the pen is a permanent extension of his right hand.
Despite his extensive education and having lived in many city-slicker places, Heaney's poetry remains very much rooted in the farm life and imagery of where he grew up. "Blackberry-Picking" is from his first collection, Death of a Naturalist (published in 1966), and is one of many poems in the book that explores simple events and images of the natural world where Heaney first lived. Although the subject matter might be all about the simple, the rural, and the domestic, the themes and ideas that Heaney's poems explore are much grander than that. Sure, "Blackberry-Picking" is about the memory of picking blackberries every summer. But it also examines ideas about life, expectation, disappointment, and many other themes that are just below the surface.
Heaney is a master of showing what's right in front of us in a delightfully clear way while at the same time uncovering the murkier ideas underneath. He is, in that way, very much like a farmer, and when he writes it's as though he's saying to us, "Here is the leafy lettuce. Pay attention to its shape and its greenness, but let me also show you the roots beneath the soil." "Blackberry-Picking" is a lot like that too. So enjoy the rich descriptions but be on the lookout for what's going on behind the scenes; you'll be surprised by what you discover.
If you're really not a poetry buff, and Seamus Heaney's poetry-world celebrity status is not enough to woo you, fear not – there's enough common ground in "Blackberry-Picking" to win over even the biggest skeptics.
What is it about August's dog days that seem to make such an impression on us? For you it might be that it's baseball's most exciting time, or that it's BBQ season, or the fact that summer's almost over and real life is about to begin again. Whatever it is to you specifically, it seems to affect us all somehow.
"Blackberry-Picking" is about one of those markers in our memory, where the speaker relives something he has done as part of a seasonal tradition, and looking back realizes what else it meant to him. It's a reminder that what shapes us along the way isn't always life's "main events" but the smaller, more familiar stuff. Let's take a trip down memory lane and see what we come back with.