e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the tag “Seamus Heaney”

On re-reading ‘The Rattle Bag’

7fb35406cc300cf593138475541434f414f4141For my late night reading lately I’ve been re-reading The Rattle Bag, a poetry anthology edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. Apparently the original intention was a collection aimed at the young or new poetry reader, but it doesn’t shirk serious subjects like death, love or loneliness. I love it and, to judge by the reviews around the web, so do many other not-so-young people.

Here is a collection of poems to which the term ‘quirky’ seriously applies, though there are plenty of ‘normal’ poems for readers who like their quirky in moderate doses.

On a more serious level the book goes to the edge of what poetry is, both in subject and form: midnight mice, no punctuation and horses eating violins crowd together with the more traditional.

One of the innovations is to arrange the poems alphabetically by title. This means that the usual pattern of date or subject is broken up. Sylvia Plath is on the same page as Shakespeare, while a pet cat precedes a pilgrim.

I’ve had this book for some years (it was published in 2005) and have read most of the poems already, some several times. However, this time I’ve had a serious look at the glossary at the back.

Many of the entries are dialect or archaic terms I already knew, and some I don’t really want to know: should I care that a danegun is an “old firearm, fairly primitive”?

But there are plenty of new-to-me words to enjoy. I’ve seen many solons (gannets) in my time, but have never met a goney (albatross). As I write the gullies (seagulls) are squawking outside. I didn’t know a rack was a cloud in the upper air and I wonder if, like other clouds, it can be scrowed (streaked).

Limbo and its literary uses

Our house move part two (into a new home) has not yet happened and we are still in a temporary place. A housing limbo with all mod cons, but not our own.

As a blogger I frequently use my own life as a springboard for posts – so I decided to look at literary uses of the idea of limbo.

Someone told me recently that the Pope has declared that limbo is not something Catholics should believe in, and a check of Wikipedia confirms that it isn’t part of core Catholic belief. But even the Pope can’t do away with something so useful.

A ‘place’ between/outside/on the edge (’limbus’ is Latin for ‘boundary’) – we have a need for that. All of us go there sometimes.

According to theology, this edgy realm is the afterlife home of unbaptised babies and the Old Testament patriarchs. Not much of a place for a good chat; babies have limited vocabularies and the Old Testament people apparently had limited interests.

Dante had a good deal to say about it and IMHO improved on it. He made it an inclusive place with unbaptised babies rubbing shoulders with the great-and-good non-Christians. Not surprisingly he included Classical poets like Homer and Ovid among its inhabitants  – they were, after all, his colleagues.

Searching the web I found a moving poem about slavery by Edward Kamau Braithwaite. This uses limbo as a metaphor for the state the slaves were in. Another of its metaphors is the dance of the same name.

There are other poems making powerful use of the concept. For example John Updike, stuck in an airport – a very limboish experience:

The plane was delayed,
the rumor went through the line. We shrugged,
in our hopeless overcoats.

Also Mary Karr on a flight that actually took off:

No sooner does the plane angle up
than I cork off to dream a bomb blast:

Seamus Heaney upends the traditional purpose of limbo with his sad poem about an unwanted child:

Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

Another metaphorical use comes from Dribbling Pensioner’s blog. This time limbo stands for the loss of mental ability.

I like this idea. When I’m old enough to have senior moments shunting nose to tail through my brain, I can say I’m in limbo, chatting to Homer, Ovid, Horace et al.

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