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.
The poems are also concerned with art and its making, the articulation of his own search for a distinctive voice. The very first poem is Digging, a self-conscious account of the vocation of art and a realisation of how that calling will separate him from the world that the poems evoke: ‘Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests. /I’ll dig with it.’
The lines seem canonical now, but Digging was a kind of initiation for Heaney; written in the summer of 1964 it was, he has said “the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words...”
Throughout his work memory is a trigger and a release into a sense of doubleness, of the intersection of the ordinary and the mysterious which comes through strongly in a poem such as The Diviner, where, as in The Forge in Door into the Dark, an unnamed custodian of a profession that seems to border the real and the imaginary goes about his business until “The rod jerked with precise convulsions, /Spring water suddenly broadcasting /Through a green hazel its secret stations.”
Heaney once said that in his earliest poems he tended to turn away from the immediate tensions – sectarianism, underlying violence – of Northern Ireland in favour of the impulse to write a more personal kind of poem, with Ted Hughes as a strong influence: “one part of my temperament took over: the private county Derry childhood part of myself rather than the slightly aggravated young Catholic male part.” Yet one of the most striking poems in Door into the Dark –Requiem for the Croppies – is an explicit identification with his nationalist heritage. Written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, it returns instead to the 1798 rebellion, and presents an image of continuity and resurrection through the voice of a dead “croppy”: “The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley – /No kitchens on the run, no striking camp – /We moved quick and sudden in our own country.”
Heaney’s world is now so familiar to his readers that it’s important to understand the degree to which his poems map experiences that were not readily available in Irish literature. He talked of how, for instance, the poetry of Louis MacNeice still felt distant to him, made him feel that he was still “up against the windowpane of literature”. The world of poetry and literature seemed remote from “the world of state scholarships, the Gaelic Athletic Association, October devotions, the Clancy Brothers, buckets and egg-boxes where I had had my being’.
This is why Patrick Kavanagh was such a vital figure – he gave Heaney permission to trust his own experience, to make poems, as had Kavanagh, out of “the unregarded data of the life I had lived”, and “to dwell without cultural anxiety among the usual landmarks of your life”.
The crucial collections of the 1970s, Wintering Out, North (1975) and Field Work (1979) see a deepening sense of the poet’s vocation, accompanied by the opening out of the poems’ perspectives with their forays into history and myth and also by a more charged sense of the poet’s role and responsibilities. Landscape, language and history are intimately connected in these poems, and in them we can read the beginning of a certain kind of public poetry, as Heaney seeks ways to represent his own heritage imaginatively and to begin to cope with the fissures of a society now in deep conflict.
The later books all draw from the well of the past, and often revisit his own previous configurations of it, so that there is a constant dialogue with himself as poet. The poems in the later books are also sharpened by their awareness of mortality. Part of Heaney’s backward glance is a consolidation of faith in the face of obliteration, as in the memorable image in Clearances of the felled chestnut tree which had been planted at his birth, “its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,/A soul ramifying and forever/Silent, beyond silence listened for.”
Everyone will go back to their own poems for their own reasons; there is an astonishing richness of work to choose from. Again and again the poetry of Seamus Heaney discovered the release into pleasure that is one of the truest sources of all poetry, and if we attend to it we might learn, like the poet, to be in step with what escapes us. It is hard to believe he is no longer with us, but we can be certain of the enduring spirit and grace of the poetry.
l This is an edited version of an introductory essay to Seamus Heaney: Collected Poems, a 15-CD box set of Heaney reading his 11 poetry collections, published by RTÉ, €74.95