The First Words


Heaney offers a version of a Sorescu poem printed in ‘The Biggest Egg in the World’ (Bloodaxe 1987). Sorescu, a Romanian from a humble farming background like Heaney’s, comments in his own particular way on the trying political circumstances of his life. He is using his own ‘spirit level’ to judge a totalitarian state.

The first words got polluted (Heaney ‘s preference for ‘got’ over, say, ‘were’ has something blunt and uncompromising about it). The river is a metaphor for contamination: Like river water in the morning / Flowing with ( ) dirt. Sorescu is sour: the pollutants are Communist propaganda-tools and a state-controlled press (blurbs and ( ) front pages) used to repress the individual.

Sorescu rejects these impurities. Things he can trust emanate from the inner recesses of his mind and from nowhere else: My only drink is meaning from the deep brain , akin to the unadulterated life-force required Nature: the birds and the grass and the stones. His hope for the future is couched in a plea that all things be allowed to revert to their original, essential nature: Let everything flow ( ) Up to water and earth and fire and air.

Use of the kind off witty paradox with which Sorescu became associated indicates that everything is at a low ebb and that upward progress in his homeland is too much to expect.

  • blurbs and front pages: short description of a book written for promotional purposes; the first page of a newspaper, containing the most important news of the day;
  • meaning: what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action; worthwhile quality;
  • deep brain: inner recesses of the mind;
  • Sorescu’s title sparks off the enquiring mind: the first words of a child put a gleam in a parent’s eye; the first words of the Old Testament celebrate Creation and Light; the first words of the New Testament set out the significance and symbolism of Christ’s birth, light and life, the Word made flesh. Heaney began life in a state of innocence and ignorance’ eroded by subsequent experience of the world around; in that respect Sorescu is a kindred spirit;
  • Marin Sorescu (1936-96) was a cheerfully melancholic comic genius, and one of the most original voices in Romanian literature. His mischievous poetry and satirical plays earned him great popularity during the Communist era. While his witty, ironic parables were not directly critical of the régime, Romanians used to a culture of double-speak could read other meanings in his playful mockery of the human condition;
  • Sorescu writes in a plainspoken, down-to-earth style spiced with sly humor. He responds to the hardships of Romanian life not with grand rhetoric or fire-and-brimstone sermons, but with what translator Michael Hamburger describes as ‘ironic verse fables’;
  • Other contributions to ‘The Biggest Egg in the World’ (Bloodaxe 1987), came from Ted Hughes and Paul Muldoon amongst others;
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: eight assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • for example, the first lines are dominated by front-of-mouth sounds: voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w] bi-labial plosives [p] and [b]
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds: voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds: voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

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