Belfast Telegraph

Seamus Heaney: An uncompromised and original voice in Irish literature

By Bruce Arnold

Seamus Heaney sent me one of his poems 'for consideration' in the spring of 1963.

I was then the editor of the Irish literary magazine, 'The Dubliner'. The poem was called 'Poor Man's Death'. We wanted to publish but my colleague Douglas Sealy had a small point of possible alteration to suggest to the poet.

"Go ahead," I said. "Write him a note." "I would rather you wrote," he said. "You're the editor." So I did and Seamus Heaney thought the change sensible enough, so we made it.

The appearance was among his first in a commercial publication.

I liked the poem and have always liked it. It is direct and pure, quite assured but simple.

It was some time before we met again, and then went on meeting in what was a cautious friendship to begin with, half-professional, embedded in the inescapable clash of creative and critical writing but blessed by my admiration for the singular determination of his 'voice'.

He came at you, word-perfect, but slowly as well, presenting, in 12 or 20 lines, observations on the metabolism of life. In the majority of poems in the earlier period of his writing, 'Death of A Naturalist' (1966), 'Door Into the Dark' (1969), 'North' (1975) and 'Field Work' (1979) there is the sense in which the process of creation gives us the physical sense of an organism or single cell built up by nutritive material into the living matter of a finished poem.

There is the purity of this coming from within himself, not pouring forth, like Byron, not bedded in myth or legend, like WB Yeats, not sardonic as is often the case with Patrick Kavanagh. In other words he was evolving as a singular voice in Irish poetry, an uncompromised and original voice.

What happened then? Well, unsurprisingly he acquired a much bigger following. There was a strong American dimension to this, as there has always been in Irish literature, and with it a strong academic threading through of his natural and instinctive verse-making with the supposed authority of myth and legend. It brought out longer poems and wider themes. It imposed on him the duty to be Ireland's voice.

Denis O'Driscoll has written of 'Seamus Heaney as a writer under siege; like the corncrake in his poem 'Serenades', who is "lost in a no man's land between combines and chemicals"'. He had to placate Ireland, America, Britain, even the wider world, all seeking to claim him and then being proved more than right when the Nobel Prize descended on him, a kind of welcome embarrassment. He received it and held it with a light hand and a modest set of responses.

Of the four Irish Nobel Prize-winners of the 20th century, Heaney was the closest to the Irish earth, to the native spirit of place, to the language and feeling of ordinary people. But he lived also through the tug and tension of a profoundly mixed society and one that, during much of his lifetime as a poet, has been engaged in a serious war with many deaths. He recognised this war in his own make-up.

He recognised it in the society that surrounded him while he was growing up and learning to be a poet. But in the traumatic spring of 1972, little did he know that the greater part of his life as a poet would be lived against the background of conflict and division.

There was a remarkable prescience on his part in recognising the middle road he needed to tread in the interests of his writing and his life. Poetry, which is secret and natural, has to make its way "in a world that is public and brutal".

At the very heart of Heaney's imagination were two forces. They tugged both together and apart. He had, as it were, an English literary father, an Irish literary mother. The feminine force was the ground he stood on; the masculine force was the language he used to describe it. "I speak and write in English, but do not altogether share the preoccupations and perspectives of an Englishman ... I live off another hump as well."

He quotes somewhere Patrick Kavanagh saying "a man dabbles in verses and finds they are his life". It is a wonderful vision of accidental inspiration and its realisation in forms which work, and which will survive.

Seamus Heaney has always been generously accessible, both in his capacities as teacher and critic, but even more so in his personal relationships.

I remember my own with gratitude.

With his death there will be a flood of literary hysteria. But it is a mark of Heaney's own sound judgment of himself and his careful, prudent, loving management of his remarkable output as a poet, that leaves us with a rich and undying creative heritage.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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