Blackberry-Picking, by Seamus Heaney
for Philip Hobsbaum
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
When I sent out this poem as an email, lots of people got in touch to tell me about how Heaney’s vision of blackberry-picking – with that literally bittersweet final image of the blackberry flesh turning to rot – reminded them of their own childhood memories. This is exactly what I think about when I read the poem. In Heaney’s hands, the ritual picking of these berries, which come into season just as summer is turning to autumn, become synonymous with a metaphorical changing of seasons. Think about how our narrator’s attitude to the blackberries develops through the poem. His vividly sensual excitement in the first stanza has, by the end of the poem, shifted into something much darker: a sense of disappointment at the inevitable souring, an annual disillusionment.
Yesterday (30 August) was the seventh anniversary of Heaney’s death. Although he was Northern Ireland’s most famous poet and regularly gave public readings, I never saw him before he died. At that time I was fourteen years old, and not much bothered with poetry. It’s only now that I’ve begun to appreciate our loss of him – his work is endlessly captivating, sensitive and relevant. So I guess this is an injunction to revisit your favourite Heaney poems; or pick up a copy of his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, which is a great first collection of poetry to own. It is unpretentious and beautiful!
With all my love,