Electric Light

( 1 )


The powerful collection by the bestselling translator of Beowulf

In the finland of perch, the fenland of alder, on air

That is water, on carpets of Bann stream, on hold

In the everything flows and steady go of the world.

—from "Perch"

Seamus Heaney's collection travels widely in time and space, visiting the sites of the classical world and revisiting the poet's childhood: ...

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Electric Light: Poems

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The powerful collection by the bestselling translator of Beowulf

In the finland of perch, the fenland of alder, on air

That is water, on carpets of Bann stream, on hold

In the everything flows and steady go of the world.

—from "Perch"

Seamus Heaney's collection travels widely in time and space, visiting the sites of the classical world and revisiting the poet's childhood: rural electrification and the light of ancient evenings are reconciled within the orbit of a single lifetime. This is a book about origins (not least, the origins of words) and oracles: the places where things start from, the ground of understanding — whether in Arcadia or Anahorish, the sanctuary at Epidaurus or the Bann valley in County Derry.

Electric Light ranges from short takes to conversation poems. The pre-Socratic wisdom that everything flows is held in tension with the elegizing of friends and fellow poets. These gifts of recollection renew the poet's calling to assign things their proper names; once again Heaney can be heard exting his word hoard and roll call in this, his eleventh collection.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Seamus Heaney is one of our foremost poets of place; though he knows art's power to liberate and unbind, his verse always roots itself in a concrete realm of the senses. Heaney's latest collection, Electric Light, moves between two homelands -- the Arcadian landscape of classical antiquity, from which so many poets draw sustenance, and the fields, bogs, and rivers of Ireland. One dimension slides into the other; poetry tracks a "Single line to sing along the lifeline," creating and sustaining an account of the life-journey through the physical world.

Several of the poems are eclogues, a classical form derived from Virgil that mourns an expulsion from one's land. Others speak of aging, another sort of exile, but one that supplies the poet with a rich hoard of memories to be spun into song. So many of these involve fellow travelers, and Electric Light includes touching odes to departed friends like Joseph Brodsky and Ted Hughes. But it is also a book of beginnings, looking ahead to "the child that's due. Maybe, heavens, sing/Better times for her and her generation."

As events from rural childhood and heady schooldays juxtapose with imaginary flashes of the future, origins and destinations blur. "Since when," the poet asks, "Are the first line and last line of any poem/Where the poem begins and ends?" On the page, as well as in the world, time's progress is dynamic, multidimensional. Beginning "Where the flat water/Came pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh," Heaney's collection ranges far and near, but comes back to rest, fittingly, on "ground": the final word in Electric Light. (Jonathan Cook)

From the Publisher
“Heaney’s status as one of the most significant poets writing in English and the greatest Irish poet since Yeats in already well established. Electric Light is further confirmation of his power to capture and transcend the immediacy of the moment, to find the stillness at the heart of things.” —Joe Treasure, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Electric Light includes poems that are sparks of fulminating retrospection . . . To say it the best I can . . . [Heaney] exercises poetry’s power to proclaim truth and the artist’s power to make us know that it is a truth we can’t be without . . . Engagement is the heart of a poem . . . and Mr. Heaney’s strongest engagement in this collection is with time: the past that lives, the present that dies.” —Richard Eder, The New York Times

"Arguably the finest poet now writing in English." —James Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review

Langdon Hammer
[T]he consciously late work of a master poet meditating on the origins and inevitable ending of his life and art. . . . [T]he 62-year-old poet's awareness of his aging . . . gives the collection special coherence and poignance.
New York Times Book Review
Carmela Ciuraru
In his 11th collection, Electric Lights, Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney rouses the places and people of his past, taking a few imaginative detours into the classical world by way of Virgilian eclogues. Through his wanderings, Heaney takes stock of everything, including great losses, that furthered his education. He offers encomiums to pleasurable and painful experiences alike; both are recalled with humble appreciation. The Toomebridge of his Irish boyhood, where even "negative ions in the open air/ Are poetry to me," is the same place "[w]here the checkpoint used to be./ Where the rebel boy was hanged in '98." Heaney approaches his subject matter with a determined readiness to search, to dig until a portrait of the past is fully revealed to him. His intensity is reflected in the muscular language throughout. Even the most ordinary memories are richly described: "Perch we called 'grunts,' little flood-slubs, runty and ready,/ I saw and see in the river's glorified body. In the everything flows and steady go of the world." The flypaper that hung from the kitchen ceiling of his childhood home is "honey-strip and death-trap, a barley-sugar twist/ of glut and loathing." In another poem, The Bookcase, Heaney recalls a piece of furniture that towers sacred in his memory: "Ashwood or oakwood? Planed to silkiness,/ Mitred, much eyed-along, each vellum-pale/ Board in the bookcase held and never sagged." He goes on to describe the colors and textures of his favorite volumes on the shelves - Hugh MacDiarmid, Elizabeth Bishop, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens and mentally retraces each part of the bookcase. "Chiefly I liked the lines and weight of it," he writes. "A measuredness. Its long back to the wall/ And carpentered right angles I could feel/ In my neck and shoulder. And books from everywhere." Sights and scents of nature are made glorious here, too: Lupins in a field "stood for something. Just by standing." The resilience of these plants that "stood their ground for all our summer wending" is awe-inspiring. "Seed packets to begin with, pink and azure," he writes, become "lupin spires, erotics of the future,/ Lip-brush of the blue and earth's deep purchase." In the book's first half, even the minor characters of Heaney's rural 1950s childhood are remembered fondly, and with stunning clarity: John Dologhan, "the best milker ever/ To come about the place. He sang 'The Rose of Mooncoin' with his head to the cow's side"; Doctor Kerlin, who would come by the household to deliver the family's babies, his hands "nosy, rosy, big, soft," and his eyes "hyperborean, beyond-the-north-wind blue"; and young Owen Kelly, playing Caliban in a school production of "The Tempest," "loping and growling,/ His underlip and lower jaw ill-set,/ A mad turn in his eye, his shot-putter's/ Neck and shoulders still a schoolboy's." The book's second section consists mostly of elegies - to beloved fellow poets now gone (Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert) and to departed friends and relatives. The most moving poem of this section is "Seeing the Sick," an ode to the poet's dying father, who becomes in his final days "spectral, a relict," his mind fading, and "his smile a summer half-door opening out/ And opening in. A reprieving light. For which the tendered morphine had our thanks." Heaney has always made luminescent the events and objects of everyday life, a feat he accomplishes again in "Electric Light." His superb attention to the minute and mundane has not diminished with time. In the title poem, he describes his boyish, wondrous delight at standing on a chair, as his parents watch, to reach a light switch for the first time. The scene, like so many in this book, is a powerful reminder that moments like these, when preserved in memory, provide small but sweet comfort against the grievous losses we endure in life.
Los Angeles Times
The greatest irish poet since yeats continues to dazzle in his latest volume.
New York Times Book Review
Arguably the finest poet now writing in English.
James Shapiro
Arguably the finest poet now writing in English.
The New York Times Book Review
Los Angeles Times Book Review
The greatest Irish poet since Yeats continues to dazzle in his latest volume.
From The Critics
The general tone of Nobel Prize-winner Heaney's latest collection, which presents lamentations, elegies and autobiographical fragments of the "Where is everybody?" variety, suggests a case of writer's fatigue. Composed using an array of poetic forms, this collection includes scenes from childhood, conversations about life and love, and mutability and unfairness, as well as elegies for the dead (poets Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky and Zbigniew Herbert are featured alongside Gaelic poets and characters from the writer's own past). Lacking humor and stoicism, the poems remain too personal; there is lots of talk, without much of Heaney's famous imagery and startling associations. Some of the most moving lines in this book are excerpted from the author's bestselling translation of Beowulf. But two poems, "Out of the Bag"—about Irish children in awe of a doctor delivering a baby—and "Electric Light"—about a fearful child in the care of an old woman— present the author's characteristic spark of ambivalence and worry.
—Stephen Whited

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Fluent, enjoyable and often masterful, this 11th book of verse from the Irish Nobel Laureate splits neatly in two. The first, larger and more varied half of the volume gathers translations and adaptations, occasional and celebratory poems, and verse about travel in Ireland's gaeltacht (Irish-speaking rural areas), as well as in the Balkans and Greece. Hints of the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf (which Heaney recently translated) play second fiddle here to the eclogues of Virgil and to celebrations of childbirth, which Heaney has made one of his specialties. Some of the strongest poems recall Heaney's own childhood in the 1950s. Part two of the book consists entirely of elegies: some commemorate poets (Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert) and comment on those poets' works, while others remember relatives and friends Heaney's dying father, for example, or (in the title poem) a whispering grandmother, "with her fur-lined felt zippers unzipped." In both sections Heaney sticks largely to the evocative pentameters of his 1990s books, with rhythms suited to represent "the everything flows and steady go of the world" a stream of joyful memories, alloyed but not overwhelmed by grief. Heaney's new volume is far from being his strongest, or strangest, or most demanding book: it's well crafted, but feels like a fortuitous culling rather than a fully realized project. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Among living, English-speaking poets, few make words perform as nimbly as Irish Nobelist Heaney. Each new book seems at once a deepening and a broadening of the tongue, as if he were synthesizing the cumulative, bardic voice of centuries. Perch are "little flood-slubs, runty and ready," bath water becomes "soft,/ Sud-luscious," and a thresher is "Raving machinery,/ ...bucking sky, rut shuddery,/ ...the underjaws/ Like staircases set champing." The protean poems in this, his 12th collection, ripple with birth and death, travel and memory, and subsume debts to both spiritual mentors (Virgil, Dante, Yeats) and peers (Hughes, Brodsky). They are rustic yet learned, classical yet contemporary. While a few of the longer poems tempt solipsism or academic dissolution, Heaney "buoyant at the helm" skillfully routes them back to the things of this world. The sequence "Sonnets from Hellas" is as rich and vital as anything he's ever published. Heaney's secret handshake with language remains firm. Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Nobel Laureate Heaney (Beowulf, 2000, etc.) has called words tools for digging, and his language usually has the tactility of a good toolkit. Moreover, as in his previous works, the subjects of the poems collected here often are drawn from the world of farming-digging, plowing, and other ways of turning the earth. Heaney manipulates the tools of his craft as wisely as any farmer, and with the certain self-effacing wit of someone who thinks of himself as a sound craftsman first and foremost. He can juggle the parts of speech in a line ("In the everything flows and steady go of the world") or present a more than passable imitation of late Auden in a tribute to Joseph Brodsky, and he is equally at home with Virgilian eclogues (of which there are several in the current volume) and the boozy good will of a drinking song. At the heart of this collection is an elegiac tone, leavened by a certain humor, a sense of the passage of time and the losses it brings. This tone is nowhere more apparent than in the second section (the concluding 30 pages), which consists mostly of poems about and for departed friends (Brodsky, Ted Hughes, Zbigniew Herbert, and others less well-known), and in the title poem (a bittersweet recollection of Heaney's childhood and the electrification of rural Ireland). In this vein, Heaney has few equals; he burnishes memory to a fine tawny glow, not sentimentalizing but not shying away from feeling, the potential for bathos held in check by his great formal skills.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374528416
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 112
  • Sales rank: 662,515
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. His poems, plays, translations, and essays include Opened Ground, Electric Light, Beowulf, The Spirit Level, District and Circle, and Finders Keepers. Robert Lowell praised Heaney as the "most important Irish poet since Yeats."

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Read an Excerpt

At Toomebridge

Where the flat water
Came pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh

As if it had reached an edge of the flat earth

And fallen shining to the continuous

Present of the Bann.

Where the checkpoint used to be.
Where the rebel boy was hanged 'in '98.

Where negative ions in the open air

Are poetry to me. As once before

The slime and silver of the fattened eel.


Perch on their water-perch hung in the dear Bann River
Near the day bank in alder-dapple and waver,

Perch we called "grunts," little flood-slubs, runty and ready,
I saw and I see in the river's glorified body

That is passable through, but they're bluntly holding the pass,
Under the water-roof, over the bottom, adoze,

Guzzling the current, against it, all muscle and slur
In the finland of perch, the fenland of alder, on air

That is water, on carpets of Bann stream, on hold
In the everything flows and steady go of the world.


They stood. And stood for something. Just by standing.
In waiting. Unavailable. But there

For sure. Sure and unbending.

Rose-fingered dawn's and navy midnight's flower.

Seed packets to begin with, pink and azure,
Sifting lightness and small jittery promise:

Lupin spires, erotics of the future,

Lip-brush of the blue and earth's deep purchase.

O pastel turrets, pods and tapering stalks
That stood their ground for all our summer wending

And even when they blanched would never balk.

And none of this surpassed our understanding.

Out of the Bag


All of us came in Doctor Kerlin's bag.
He'd arrive with it, disappear to the room

And by the time he'd reappear to wash

Those nosy, rosy, big, soft hands of his
In the scullery basin, its lined insides

(The colour of a spaniel's inside lug)

Were empty for all to see, the trap-sprung mouth
Unsnibbed and gaping wide. Then like a hypnotist

Unwinding us, he'd wind the instruments

Back into their lining, tie the cloth
Like an apron round itself,

Darken the door and leave

With the bag in his hand, a plump ark by the keel . . .
Until the next time came and in he'd come

In his fur-lined collar that was also spaniel-coloured

And go stooping up to the room again, a whiff
Of disinfectant, a Dutch interior gleam

Of waistcoat satin and highlights on the forceps.

Getting the water ready, that was next —
Not plumping hot, and not lukewarm, but soft,

Sud-luscious, saved for him from the rain-butt

And savoured by him afterwards, all thanks
Denied as he towelled hard and fast,

Then held his arms out suddenly behind him

To be squired and silk-lined into the camel coat
At which point he once turned his eyes upon me,

Hyperborean, beyond-the-north-wind blue,

Two peepholes to the locked room I saw into
Every time his name was mentioned, skimmed

Milk and ice, swabbed porcelain, the white

And chill of tiles, steel hooks, chrome surgery tools
And blood dreeps in the sawdust where it thickened

At the foot of each cold wall. And overhead

The little, pendent, teat-hued infant parts
Strung neatly from a line up near the ceiling —

A toe, a foot and shin, an arm, a cock

A bit like the rosebud in his buttonhole.

Copyright © 2001 Seamus Heaney

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2002

    not his best work

    the latest collection of poetry from seamus heaney isn't his best work. in fact, if you aren't familiar with his work you'd do better starting with opened ground. there is a pensive tone throughout the collection, and the entire second half is written for recently dead poets. when you read this you can see why he won the nobel, but i'd wait to read this after you've gone through his selected poems.

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