Seamus Heaney

Still wearing the Laurel crown

Washington is set for a poetic literary treat this April when almost the full roll call of the dual triumvirates of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian will be visiting Washington for A Shower of Rhyming Couplets on April 18, as part of the Rediscover NI programme. 

They will be joined by flourishing writers such as Sinead Morrissey and Leontia Flynn. 

Heaney has grown into a people’s poet in the best sense of the word. 

Threatened by loyalists in the 1960s, criticised by fellow poets Ciaran Carson and James Simmons for a perceived ambivalence regarding republican violence in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Heaney has gained major international recognition for a career founded on the den life of a rural Catholic upbringing.

Born in April 1939 at Mossbawn, the family farm in south Derry, Heaney was Educated at St Columb’s college in Derry city and Queen’s University, Belfast. Publishing overwrought juvenilia in the university magazine, Gorgon under the nom de plume of Incertus, Heaney then went on to teach under the supervision of the novelist Michael McLaverty, whose advice is recalled in the poem Fosterage.

… ‘Listen. Go your own way.
Do your own work…’
But to hell with overstating it:
‘Don’t have the veins bulging in your biro.’

The poems in Heaney’s early volumes Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969) spoke of the rural Irish experience in a voice that echoed and exceeded Kavanagh. Pieces like 'Blackberry-Picking' were already being taught in primary schools in the early 1970s.

Heaney's third collection, North (1975), saw him exploring new territory.

Viewing the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the prism of a generalised northern, Scandinavian experience, poems like 'Bog Queen', 'The Grauballe Man' and 'Strange Fruit' found symbolic parallels for some of the worst atrocities of the violence at home in ancient sacrificial victims.

It seemed that, for Heaney, the political murders of the 1970s were in fact inevitable recurrences of tribal, atavistic ritual, as poems like 'Punishment' attest.

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilised outrage,
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

Oddly, it is with 1979’s 'Field Work', a collection dominated by the influence of the American ‘confessional’ poet Robert Lowell, that Heaney seemed to grasp the measure of the Northern Troubles.

A book of elegies, Field Work may well be the high point of Heaney’s career.

Heaney explores and elucidates his own outlook through consideration of his poetic forebears. Yeats, of course, but also Wordsworth and Hopkins; American near-contemporaries like Roethke, Lowell and Bishop; Englishmen Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin, as well as the Scots ‘lunatic lexicographer’ Hugh MacDiarmid; and, centrally, Patrick Kavanagh, to whom Heaney returns again and again as a touchstone, authenticator and permissive exemplar.

The award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 acknowledged Heaney’s huge international stature, and lent credence to the longstanding comparison with Yeats, Nobel laureate in 1923.

In his acceptance speech in Stockholm, Heaney talked of his ‘temperamental disposition towards an art that was earnest and devoted to things as they are’.

The speech reveals the wide range of influences and attitudes that lie behind his poetry and the scope of his concerns. With 2006’s District and Circle continuing Heaney’s impressive output, this is a poet who is still creating his lasting legacy.