In Texas, nature hates you.
If you walk barefoot across a field, you are certain to get bitten and/or stabbed by at least three angry bugs or plants. If you scour the bushes for something edible, you’ll be lucky if you come across one dewberry. More likely, you’ll find poison ivy and a thorny vine.
When I visited Oregon, Canada, and Michigan, I was surprised to discover that nature doesn’t hate you. You can walk across a field barefoot, and the clover-covered ground is springy and comforting. Berry bushes pop up everywhere–Marion berries, salmonberries, blueberries, blackberries, black raspberries–without you even looking for them.
Maybe that’s why this poem has captivated my imagination ever since I read it a few years ago. Seamus Heaney does a marvelous job of evoking the sensation of seeking out blackberries, ignoring your stinging hands and arms, and hoping you’re not trespassing.
So there’s the poem. Now I’ll share some of my thoughts about it.
“Blackberry Picking” starts out with Heaney reminiscing about the good old days when he picked blackberries as a child. Just reading it, I can smell the sweet blackberries in the hot air, hear the hum of bees and the plunk of berries into a can, and feel the sting of sweat trickling down my scratched arms. The scene is lazy, innocent, and full of contentment.
Then we get to the second stanza. The dream evaporates. All we have left are a few pails of rotten fruit. And we’re not talking a little mushiness that we won’t even notice if we use them in a blackberry pie. We’re talking mold, fungus, stench.
Then there’s the curious last few lines:
“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” (23-25).
These lines strike me as distinctly childlike. I remember being a small child and wanting to cry every time I found a dead butterfly or bird or squirrel. I’m sure that, had I lived somewhere with berries, I would have cried if the berries I’d picked had gone bad.
Yet the speaker in the poem continues to pick too many blackberries, summer after summer. He’s innocent enough to hope that they won’t go bad–even though he knows in the back of his mind that they will. When they do, he still feels like crying, even though he suspected it all along. He’s caught between despair and hope that borders on denial.
That’s the content of the poem. Now let’s talk about form. We’re approaching my favorite thing about poetry: sound devices!
First, let’s talk about alliteration. While most people think of rhymes when they think of poetry, in Old English, alliteration was a key characteristic of poetry. Take these lines from Beowulf:
“Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum,
monegum mægþum meodo-setla oftēah” (4-5)
I have no idea what this means, but I can see that there’s alliteration there.
“Blackberry Picking” reads a lot like Heaney’s wonderful translation of Beowulf in its alliteration…
“We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus” (17-19)
…and its kennings.
A kenning is an epithet made of 2 nouns. The nouns are either hyphenated, like “whale-road” for “ocean” in Beowulf, or possessive, like “summer’s blood” for “blackberry juice” in “Blackberry Picking.”
The other kennings in “Blackberry Picking” aren’t quite real kennings. “Milk-cans, pea-tins, and jam-pots” are just names, not epithets for something else. But the hyphens still make the poem read like Old English.
According to Heaney in his introduction to Beowulf, the similarities between his early poetry (such as “Blackberry Picking”) and Beowulf were unintentional:
“When I was an undergraduate at Queen’s University, Belfast, I studied Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems and developed not only a feel for the language but a fondness for the melancholy and fortitude that characterized the poetry.
“I had noticed, for example, that without any conscious intent on my part certain lines in the first poem [“Digging”] in my first book [Death of a Naturalist] conformed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics. […] Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start” (pp. xxii-xxiii).
Heaney weds modern diction with Old English sound devices in “Blackberry Picking.” The resulting poem is caught in between old and new, like the summer long ago that Heaney is recalling.
What do you think about “Blackberry Picking”? What are some of your favorite poems? Let me know in comments!
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Featured Image from Canva. Poem graphic made by me in Canva.