Seamus Heaney died this week. I am not a great expert on poetry; I often struggle to engage with it. Prose, especially non-fiction prose, is much more my spiritual kin. There are a few poets, however, who I have encountered either through chance or study, and just one or two of those managed to stick.
As I listened to the Front Row tribute to Heaney, they mentioned the tangible and grounded moments of his writing, the potato peelings, and immediately the poems, which I had studied seven or eight years ago, came flooding back.
It took an unexpected conversation the next day though, about his famous poem 'Blackberry-Picking' and the inevitably fleeting nature of sumptuousness and joy, to set my mind spinning and what unravels in this post is what came about as a result.
I think childhood is, generally speaking, a preparation for disappointment.
From said conversation, I learned that Heaney made this claim. The 'glossy purple clot' of that first blackberry of late August and its sweet 'summer blood', which made the young Heaney 'lust for - picking' eventually led to a bath filled with a 'rat-grey fungus' and 'the sweet flesh would turn sour'. His closing lines read:
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.
Of course, his blackberries stand for much more than fruit, more even than childhood. The lust, the hunger, thorn pricks and sweet flesh could be read to represent the inevitable story of infatuation and the kind of burning passion that quickly and inevitably consumes all in its path. But I am not here to conduct a close reading of Heaney - I have already confessed my inadequacy in that regard.
Instead I want counter that not only is disappointment dependent on where your expectations are built from, but that if Heaney's blackberries did not rot there would be no anticipation, no moment when they begin to ripen, and rather than rotting, they would simply be stale.
Forgive me if this post bends and twists like a wild briar, but I think a good place to start is the telling of stories. Humans by nature, it seems, create a narrative around their (our!) experiences. We look for patterns and pull events and inferences together to tell a story. But the very way in which we create the concept of narrative is in juxtaposition to the disconnected and objective nature of reality. One has no meaning without the other.
It is important to recognise, however, that in creating these narratives from lived experience we begin to build expectations about where those stories will go; how they will end; how we want them to end. Already we have created a false cohesion around our past, but even more dangerously we begin to use that as a basis for building our hopes and dreams.
And, yet more dangerously, it is at this point that societal and cultural influences get built into our plots.
Why we want
In order to suffer disappointment, which we all do, many of us deeply and painfully, we have to have built expectations that are not met. Hopes that are dashed. Plans that fail. And while it hurts and crushes us in the moment. While we desperately wish, as Heaney did every year with his blackberries, that things would turn out differently - they don't. But it depends on where we have built those wants from as to whether we would really be better off without that disappointment.
The moment we think ahead and create an idea of what could be from what is, we run the risk of building a picture that is heavily influenced by a set of expectations that are not our own. Thinking traditionally, this could be expectations of marriage, families, home ownership, careers and wealth.
So many people follow this expected path. For some it works; for many it disappoints. But, unless you have stopped and really thought about what it is about your narrative up to now that makes you want the expectation you are setting for yourself you cannot enjoy that moment immediately after disappointment when you change, learn, evolve and build new experiences into your narrative.
Of course blackberries turn to mush
And Heaney knows it. That is why he writes 'knew they would not.' We all want to avoid the moment that reality butts in on our beautifully formed story, but it always will because by its very nature it is a counter to our stories.
If all we hope for is what we are told to hope for however, we will get stuck in Heaney's annual cycle of disappointment. Always wishing to extend and preserve the same moment because we are told we should.
If instead we took that incredibly difficult step and thought about why we want what we do, and why we are telling ourselves the stories we are, in the voices and genres that we are, perhaps we could take a disappointment as an opportunity to redraft the whole thing. Try a new angle. Scrap some paragraphs and get stuck in with some major edits.
Easier said than done
Of course it is. But Heaney's death, the blackberries and the turn to autumn have reminded me that to live as honestly to yourself as you can is the one of the kindest things you can do for others. For, to build a story on what you are told is a perfect fairy tale, is to set all the characters in it up for the same, repetitive and disappointing ending.
Tell your story from what has been, but never expect the blackberries to last. Look forward to the apples and the mince pies instead. They have a different and wonderful luxuriousness all of their own for you to hope for.