Getting to know… Seamus Heaney

June 1, 2010

When a poet does one thing, and does it well, then he or she may well be assured of Being remembered. When a poet does two, or more, then larger status may be what time grants. With his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966, Heaney looked set to become a poet of Irish ruralism, an agrarian poet with an undercurrent of political ominousness.  A single book, perhaps just one poem, can make a reputation at least among those who care for poetry.  Poets and readers, though, prefer growth and amplitude.

Metropolitan critics often distrust poets who have, or have had, mud on their boots.  Or else they adore the loamy atmosphere, the straw-in-the-hair, fence-leaning sort of thing.  It’s that softly pastoral affection in the English sensibility, and it’s resulted in fine works of art, music, and literature, although it doesn’t explain much of Heaney or his achievement.  Book after book, poem after poem (and he’s now seventy), his work demonstrates an imagination that is simultaneously autonomous and yet attached to recognisable realities.  Increasingly, his imagination and powers of perception have become visionary, even mystical; but he also balances the colloquial with the ceremonial, an agreeable speaking voice with the hieratic and elevated, the topical with the eternal, the grievous with the celebratory.

Neither modernist, nor post-modernist, Heaney, like some other poets of his generation, has created an individual poetic space with room enough to accommodate the social and the spiritual, facts and mysteries, the quotidian and what can be perceived to be beyond it, the national and the international, the personal and the public, the creative and the critical.  These antitheses all go into a mix that makes Heaney’s poetic identity so distinctive and valorous.  His poetry is accessible and accepted.

He’s a full-throated poet who doesn’t shout at you.  He’s not an aggressive poet; but nor is he a yielding one. In ‘The Harvest Bow’ (in Scotland, it’s called a ‘hairst maiden’) he writes of  “a knowable corona of straw” — a broad legato melody, with a wonderful resonance of vowels that lifts off the page like a rhapsodic tune off a musical score.  I know critics who suspect that kind of effect in poetry.  They see it as too close to artifice, an over-fondled phrase.  They miss the point.  Such moments in Heaney’s poetry represent potential didacticism or covert ideology dissolving in pure poetic utterance.

Poetry emerges from a coincidence of experience with knowledge, imagination, and pre-rehearsed or available artistry.  I call that coincidence inspiration.  From ‘Markings’:

All these things entered you
As if they were both the door and what came through it.
They marked the spot, marked time and held it open.
A mower parted the bronze sea of corn.
A windlass hauled the centre out of water.
Two men with a cross-cut kept it swimming
Into a felled beech backwards and forwards
So that they seemed to row the steady earth.

Here, artistry controls the steady rhythm, but is also embodied in the exactness of words used.  Neither ‘windlass’ nor ‘cross-cut’ is part of everyday vocabulary.  How often do we use these terms?  We know what they mean, but it’s as if we’re being reminded of them.  And, too, what they’re being used for, probably instinctively — a sensuous, alliance of water, wood and earth, an interplay of senses characteristic of his best work.  Also, ‘you’ where ‘I’ might have been anticipated indicates a phenomenon many younger poets are slow to learn, but of which Heaney is a master — artistry in poetry depends on syntax, on a surprising way of saying, which is an equivalent of imagination as a surprising way of seeing.

There abides in Heaney’s poetry a sense of an earlier society.  It’s more than the wonder-world of his Irish country childhood.  He’s been drawn to the heroic and epic, and hence to the Homeric, to Sophocles, to Virgil, Beowulf, Dante, and now Robert Henryson.  Having read Henryson many times I fancy I don’t need much, if anything, in the way of glosses.  That affable, melodic, tenderly wise voice re-cycled was likely to turn out a bit of a disappointment, or so I thought.  I was wrong.  If poetry is translating one’s own language into itself (and I’m committing the sin of quoting a line of my own) then Heaney’s translation, or “writing by proxy”, has resulted in a virtuosic equivalent of a great original masterpiece.

Those of us who spent much of our childhoods hanging around byres, barns, stables and horses, sly collies, crops, cattle, dairies, and imbibing the seasons of the 1940s and ‘50s, are perhaps most susceptible to Heaney’s poetry, although his deserved popularity suggests that his work is simply canonical in its own time.  Just as there’s a ‘lost’ Ireland, there’s a ‘lost’ Scotland, although neither is as ‘lost’ as all that, nor are they forlorn.  Convenient technologies and change have a lot to be said for them; and poetry finds it hard to say it.

The pull isn’t necessarily to the past or to backwardness.  Poetry takes its stand in the eternal, in the continuous, in a benevolent vision; and that, clearly, is at the heart of what he does, which is why I admire Heaney the poet, the critic, and the man.

Douglas Dunn

Douglas Dunn’s latest publication is A Line in the Water, 15 new poems with etchings by landscape artist Norman Ackroyd (Royal Academy of Arts, London, £60).

This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader Issue 5

One Response to “Getting to know… Seamus Heaney”


  1. “Translating one’s own language into itself…”

    Good line, good line… I remember reading someone somewhere claiming that a parable was a story turning itself inside out and writing about itself. Like a Klein bottle.


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