The First Words

Heaney offers a version of a Marin Sorescu poem printed in ‘The Biggest Egg in the World’ (Bloodaxe 1987). Sorescu a Romanian from a humble farming background similar to Heaney’s is commenting on repressive political circumstances in his own particular way. He uses his ‘spirit level’ to establish just how much things are weighted against in a Communist state.

A poet assesses the gap between what was promised and how things have turned out; it centres on corruption (the first words got polluted) – Heaney ‘s preference for ‘got’ over ‘were’ has something peasant-class, blunt and as-everyone-round-here-knows-very-well about it.  The changing content of flowing water offers a ready- made metaphor for contamination (river water in the morning / flowing with dirt. Sorescu is sour: the major pollutant is a Communist propaganda-tool in the shape of a state-controlled press (blurbs and front pages) used utterly to mislead and repress the individual.

Sorescu rejects these impurities masquerading as truths. Things he can trust, very much in a Milosz sense, emanate from the inner recesses of his mind and from nowhere else (my only drink is meaning from the deep brain) and are as plain and simple as the unadulterated life-force manifested in Nature (the  birds and the grass and the stones).

His hope for the future is couched in a plea that all things warped by political circumstances be allowed to revert to their original, elemental shape (let everything flow up to water and earth and fire and air).

Sorescu hopes that his witty message that everything in his homeland is pretty rubbish and that upward progress is too much to expect will remain beyond the comprehension of the dull-witted in charge.

  • blurbs and front pages: short description of a book written for promotional purposes; the first page of a newspaper setting out its view of 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 Northern Irish 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/ ang

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