Editor’s choice: Three Young Poets

From the archive: In 1966 Eavan Boland wrote this introduction to three young poets: Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon


Three Young Poets by Eavan Boland
First published: January 15th 1966

THESE SELECTIONS from the work of three Northern poets were recently published as part of the Northern Festival’s admirable programme. Two of these, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley won the Eric Gregory award for 1965, the third, Seamus Heaney, will appear for the first time with Faber and Faber in the spring.

It would be fatuous to suggest that these three poets draw fairly and deliberately on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Donne and Keats in that order. All the same their work is astonishing for its inclusion of a wide range of traditional tones, and for its freedom from what might be termed the Embarrassed Imagination, that distressing and obstinate emphasis which one finds in a great deal of contemporary English poetry, on descriptions of experience together with evasions of its meaning.

Michael Longley has eleven poems in his pamphlet. He is perhaps the most rewarding to re-read, since many of these poems are brilliantly argued, for instance “Graffiti.”

Such passion thwarted, such artistry released!
O where would Beauty be without her Beast?

His weaknesses are a slight fondness for acrobatic, obscure syntax and an unnecessary reliance on ambiguity, unnecessary since his talents are quite equal to attaining the fourth dimension without gimmicks. At the back of this leaflet is a quite remarkable poem “Circe,” an exquisite evocation of the mystery of seduction:

I have made of my arms and my thighs last rooms,
‘For the irretrievable and
capsized -
‘I extend the sea, its idioms.

* * *

SEAMUS HEANEY does not pretend to Longley’s expertise. In face one gets, the impression that it is alien to his sensibility, that he preserves deliberately a robust, concrete approach to his own rural experience. This has its disadvantages, one of them being “Death of a Naturalist” which, unless it conceals some profound allegory, is a lengthy, disappointing description of frogs. But the advantages are preeminent; he has a very lovely poem about his father “Follower”:

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling
Yapping always. But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

When one compares this and “Personal Helicon,” the first poem in the leaflet, with such pieces as “Death of a Naturalist” and “For the Commander of the Eliza.” it is as if there were a split personality in Heaney’s work. On the one hand he appears to feel an obligation to confine his gifts within the narrowest, descriptive boundaries, on the other, when he releases them as in “Personal Helicon” he remains faithful to his experience, while lighting it with precision and rare lyric force:

Now to pry into roots, ‘to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

‘Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

* * *

DEREK MAHON’S poetry is more obviously rhetorical than Longley’s or Heaney’s. This can determine into facility as in “Man and Bird,” but at his best he has an insight, and flamboyant powers of expressing it. Most of all he has the gift of rhythms which are rapid, fluent and unforgettable. Perhaps the best poem in this selection is his beautiful elegy for Louis MacNiece:

This plot is consecrated for your sake
To what lies in the future tense. You lie

Past tension now, and spring is coming round
Igniting flowers on the peninsula.

These three poets deserve more space and scrutiny. However, instead of attempting to summarise neatly their achievement and potential, I would rather make a more practical suggestion. Not one of these pamphlets is in a Dublin bookshop. Quite apart from the fact that it is farcical to review unavailable books, it is an unhappy comment on this city’s eagerness for fresh and exciting work. One wonders whether this oversight is not caused by what Toynbee termed “a fatuous passivity to the present. due to an infatuation with the past."

MICHAEL LONGLEY: Ten Poems. Festival Publications. 2s. 6d.

SEAMUS HEANEY: Eleven Poems. Festival Publications. 2s. 6d.

DEREK MAHON: Twelve Poems. Festival Publications. 2s. 6d.

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