Much has already been written about Seamus Heaney since his death yesterday, but my words will perhaps seem tangential to many of the eulogies, for my subject today will be not Heaney’s poems but his marvelous anthology The Rattle Bag, compiled with his co-editor Ted Hughes. I first came to it while in Cambridge, England. A friend of mine, then an editor at Granta, told me that this was his favorite poetry anthology, so on my next visit to Heffers I found it and was instantly captivated. (The copy I bought then in 1982 lies open in front of me as I write this.)
Captivation has also been the almost universal reaction of the 9th-graders in my English classes, who used it as their poetry anthology. The first lesson was an easy one-word pleasure: “Read!” In half an hour the whole class would usually be talking about their finds. Students would be required to give a practiced reading of one poem, and a recitation by heart of another. Students chose freely except with a requirement for a minimum number of lines. Examples of chosen poems include “All the world’s a stage,” “Be Merry,” “Cocaine Lil and Morphine Sue,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Invictus,” “Jerusalem,” “Kerr’s Ass,” “The North Ship,” “A Poison Tree,” “Poppies in July,” “The Smile,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed.” You must have noticed that the list of students’ choices begins and ends with Shakespeare and has everything in between.
You may also have noticed that the list is in alphabetical order. That is the only order in the book. There are no chapters, themes, subjects, headings, techniques, explanations, exercises, questions, interpretations, skills, or footnotes. (A small glossary of strange and foreign words at the end, and a list of poems sorted by poet are the only apparatus.) The only criterion Heaney and Hughes applied when choosing the poems was that “each poem, full of its singular appeal, [transmit] its own signals [and take] its chances in a big, voluble world.”
I love that criterion that a poem should be “full of its singular appeal.” To say why requires a story. It is set in a place near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. I was seated for dinner at a restaurant that was open on one side to an adjacent forest, or wood, or jungle of what I had been told was first growth. We were elevated at least a big cat’s leap above the woods; nothing other than a kind of balustrade separated us and the forest’s inhabitants. Midway through the meal we all heard a pronounced and extensive rustling and cracking of brush and branches, but no animals came out of the bush to be seen. We continued our dinner with a certain uneasiness.
The following morning I was out for a walk where a road skirted this same wood. In front of me were a number of pedestrians standing patiently, at some distance from a herd of fifty or so Cape buffalo that were crossing the road. Following the pedestrians’ lead, I kept my distance. I remember from reading “The Most Dangerous Game” that Zaroff thought the buffalo the most dangerous game, though of course he turned out to be wrong. I had heard similar warnings from others.
But the best warning I have read was in one of the Yoruba hunter poems in The Rattle Bag. It is called, simply, “Buffalo.”
The buffalo is the death
that makes a child climb a thorn tree.
When the buffalo dies in the forest
the head of the household is hiding in the roof.
When the hunter meets the buffalo
he promises never to hunt again.
He will cry out: ‘I only borrowed the gun!
I only look after it for my friend!”
Little he cares about your hunting medicines:
he carries two knives on his head,
little he cares about your danegun,
he wears the thickest skin.
He is the butterfly of the savannah:
he flies along without touching the grass.
When you hear thunder without rain—
it is the buffalo approaching.
To take only the first couplet: the thorn acacia’s thorns are an inch or two long, and they are hard not pulpy. The wag’n bietjie bush’s sharp curved thorns catch and hold you to “wait a bit”—just what you don’t want when the buffalo is coming. Children may learn the pain and danger of thorns, but they also know the greater danger of the buffalo with his “two knives.”
The anthology has page after page of such vivid surprises mixed with some of our old favorites. The poet most quoted is Blake, but Ogden Nash “weighs” in with eight choices including one bit of unexpected heaviness to keep us guessing. Even the longer selections are interesting enough leave us expectant about what the next page will bring. Heaney’s great accomplishments as a poet are being eulogized elsewhere, but I want to thank him (and Hughes) for so many welcome chances to “wait a bit” with the sometimes thorny but always attractive poems in their anthology.