18 July 2009

Seamus Heaney

Although Thomas O'Grady focuses on place names in the following excerpt from his reading (2006) of Seamus Heaney's "Broagh" (1972), he exhibits the kind of mother tongue awareness that a multilingual critic needs to make full sense of a poem. This poem has been read several times by various critics, but O'Grady introduces a language element that illuminates not just the place names but the linguistic complexity of the poem:

"The most subtle of Heaney’s territorial claims on place — on place made word and on word made place — may be the poem 'Broagh,' the first word of which translates the title, a contracted variant of the Irish phrase bruach abhana:

Riverbank, the long rigs
ending in broad docken
and a canopied pad
down to the ford.

The garden mould
bruised easily, the shower
gathering in your heelmark
was the black O

in Broagh,
its low tattoo
among the windy boortrees
and rhubarb-blades

ended almost
suddenly, like that last
gh the strangers found
difficult to manage.

"Understandably, this poem has received a measure of critical attention, as well as a measure of readerly appreciation, for its obvious focus on the challenge that 'strangers' (plausibly, but not exclusively, the British) face in pronouncing correctly not only that lightly guttural gh but also that first vowel, the clipped o, which makes this seemingly simple word into a sort of two-syllable tongue-twister. Tellingly, however, 'Broagh' begins to operate as 'a verbal contraption' (W. H. Auden’s fine phrase) fueled by local specifics long before that tricky vowel. In fact, each line of the first stanza concludes with a word that, almost as much as the name Broagh itself, grounds the poem in Heaney’s particular world: 'rigs' is a regional term for ploughed furrows; 'docken' is a local variation on the deep-rooted weed known elsewhere as burdock; 'pad' approximates the local pronunciation of 'path'; and 'ford,' deriving from the Old Norse word fjord (found as a suffix in Irish placenames like Waterford and Wexford) and referring to a shallow point in the river that would allow one to wade across, has clearly been retained in the vernacular from the time of the Viking invasions of Ireland in the 9th and 10th centuries. (The Viking legacy would of course be Heaney’s central fascination in his 1975 volume North.) In a similar fashion, the word 'boortrees' in the third stanza resonates as the local pronunciation of 'bower trees' — that is, elderberry trees.

"Obviously, then, 'Broagh' — on the surface a mere two sentences, readable in one breath — is deceptively simple. And in a way that is Heaney’s point: no less than the language of poetry, the language of the everyday world can be loaded with implication — sometimes political implication."

There are three languages at work here - Irish, English, and the language of poetry. To navigate all three languages is a tough job, but O'Grady does it well.

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