June 14th, 1975
FROM THE ARCHIVES:Fellow poet Michael Hartnett reviewed Seamus Heaney’s latest collection, North, in 1975. – JOE JOYCE
THERE IS no doubt about it, Seamus Heaney is a superb poet. Given the reservations of Dublin cliques – I heard one eminent “critic” call him “an emigrant” – given the meanness of the minds of those in Ireland, North and South, who call themselves poets, whose spite and envy wouldn’t have given the Good Thief a chance – given my own expectancy, restlessness and insistence that a poet must move on, he maintained his standards through three collections and surpassed them in North.
His green world, beautiful but barbaric was enriched by the attention he gave to a more ancient world, the bog, which is not only our timekeeper, but a graph of our consciences. He was fortunate (and brilliant enough) to find a vein in Irish verse, which for a poet of his love, insight and sympathy, is inexhaustible.
The fashionable tragedy of the North has, of course, darkened, his verse, especially in the poems in part two of this collection – The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, The Ministry of Fear– attempt to transmute into poetry the horror that currently stalks his hinterland:
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner emigre, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre.
These lines, from the poem Exposurewhich is a kind of apologia, show the unease he suffers at being away from the brutalities of the North. He has no need to apologise to a public who always shake hands with poets thumbs-down. We cannot afford to put any poet in danger – perhaps he will miss The once-in-a-lifetime portent but Lorca went to Granada, to the delight of his enemies: mobs, especially friendly mobs love to kill poets. His fear and also his mistaken trust is shown in the poem The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream.
Whether his fascination with an Irish countryside had led him logically to consider Irish history or whether it is the troubles in the North, is at the moment immaterial. Poets can unravel history in a much more exciting way than historians can: insight and speculation combine for the best poets (and Seamus Heaney is one of the best) into far more profound and interesting truths than any Toynbee can concoct. In the poem Act of Union he displays the one facet of his poetry that I dislike. Using the 1800 Act of Union as his metaphorical base, he builds up a sexual barrage of unsubtle images. This butch delight in phallic symbol has always annoyed me and marred some fine poems. But it has declined with each collection. I end this review as I began it: Seamus Heaney is a superb poet: the proof is in almost every poem in this book – as in Sunlight.
And here is love
Like a tinsmith’s scoop
Sunk past its gleam
In the meal-bin.
This is a still-life enhanced by the hand of a Dutch master.