Heaney’s poetry earned itself an acceptance and admiration of a kind rarely seen
From the outset Heaney was a poet of extraordinary materiality
Seamus Heaney. “Everyone will go back to their own poems for their own reasons; there is an astonishing richness of work to choose from.”
A few years ago I was driving along a country road near Strokestown, Co Roscommon. It was dark and I was slightly nervous because I didn’t know the road well and I was looking for the local secondary school in whose assembly hall Heaney would be giving a reading. Suddenly out of the darkness loomed a huge ash tree on whose branches I could make out a large cardboard sign with the words “Seamus Heaney” in luminous paint and an arrow pointing to a lane on the right.
The improvised sign, the reading that followed to a packed and enthralled audience, and the excitement afterwards, testified to a popularity and a rapport with readership and audience unusual even in a country that grants occasional notice to poets and poetry.
From the outset Heaney was a poet of extraordinary materiality: the visible world swarmed in to be reconstituted in dense stacks of language – those processions of thickly textured nouns and adjectives, that lust for exactitude, for a language that answered the demands of memory and clanged with the force of hammer on anvil.
What is it about this poetry that appeals to so many and that has, from the outset, earned itself critical acceptance and admiration of a kind rarely seen, establishing a consensus perhaps best summarised by Christopher Ricks when he called Heaney “the most trusted poet of our islands”?
Part of the appeal, certainly, lies in the subject matter. Heaney’s consistent imaginative attention to his rural Co Derry upbringing affords many readers the sense, perhaps, that the life he expresses is part of a collective life of the spirit, the life of an Ireland that belongs to our sense of the past.
The verbal gifts that he brings to bear on his subjects give the work a sensual presence and an appeal to what he himself has called “the auditory imagination” that is hard to resist, in the way that Wordsworth, Hardy or Ted Hughes are hard to resist. There is the rich variety of the work: the poems of nature, the love poems, the poetry of memory, the translations, the essays. And yet, from the very beginning, a current of unease runs through the work, a sense that poetry, for all its aesthetic compensations, may not be enough, that the poet is poised, uncomfortably, between “politics and transcendence”, between realism and celebration or between “the atrocious” and the counterlife of imaginative faith.
The narrative of Heaney’s poetic career runs parallel to the political disintegration of Northern Ireland and the ensuing violence, and the uncertainty principle is closely linked to the poet’s struggle to come to terms both with the violence itself and the poet’s response to it. Heaney has had to bear the weight of public expectation – an expectation as ill-defined as it was pervasive – that poetry should somehow answer to violence, division, rupture, that the poet speaks out of the public domain, that his voice must somehow be representative.