Poetry Ireland Review

Latest issue sees a range of contemporary poets writing about their favourite Seamus Heaney poems

The current editor of Poetry Ireland Review, Gallery poet Vona Groarke, says of their current special edition dedicated to the late Seamus Heaney that she wanted to mark the passing of the singular and loved poet by moving attention back to his poems.

Inviting a wide range of contemporary poets from Britain, Ireland and the United States to choose a favourite poem and respond to it in a short essay, Groarke hoped for ‘a careful and insightful probe into how each poem worked’ – a process like opening up the back of an 18th century clock to examine its mechanism.

The typical response was that nothing would give the poet more pleasure than sitting with a Heaney poem trying to work out its magic. The result is a gloriously democratic literary lucky bag, and in the enlightenment spirit Groarke imagined, some hypotheses seem proven in their repetition through the essays, others are singular and fresh.

Poetry Ireland Review is published quarterly by Poetry Ireland, and this issue was officially launched north of the border in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on November 25. Coincidentally, the Belfast-based Irish Pages contemporary writing periodical also have a new edition out now dedicated to Heaney.

The poets featured in this publication had free choice of poem and yet there is little doubling up. The poems are reproduced alongside the essay commentaries. Many of the poets reflect on the moment of first encountering Heaney. For many, Heaney’s voice is the voice we hear when reading the poems, having had that voice with us for so long.

American poet Christian Wiman, having ‘known the poems not simply by heart but by bone and nerve’, found it almost impossible to meet Heaney late in his life. He selects ‘Sunlight’ as a particular favourite but says, ’there are truths the very authencitiy of which depends upon their [the poems] not being uttered', and reveals that, on the occasion of that late meeting, he flinched if Heaney got his own cadences ‘wrong’.

Cumbrian poet, Jacob Polley’s essay, ‘Home’, is one of the most arresting and moving – itself a prose poem of his Heaney epiphany. Polley describes a teenage life made fragmentary by a mother’s illness, a home life ‘precarious and dangerous’, a life lived in overlapping circles, like a Venn diagram.

And suddenly, in Seeing Things – a book bought on a whim in a Carlisle bookshop in response to a ‘trippy magic-eye pattern’ that the Faber & Faber logo reminded him of – he reads ‘Wheels Within Wheels’ and in the description there, of turning the wheels of an upside-down bike, he sees, not a description of his life but the life itself embodied.

‘And as I experience this physical event carried into language,' Polley writes, 'I realise that this is the first time words have reconciled me to the world, the first time language and all my lives have been aligned, and I feel at home.’

One of the questions raised in the essays is how Heaney’s poetry avoids sentimentality. Don Paterson’s essay accompanying ‘The Harvest Bow’ is a brilliant exploration of an experience that Heaney readers will recognise, of how the poems may begin in memory but work by a kind of deepening, individual words allowing or suggesting other etymologies that open up more and more layers of meaning.

‘When a word is salient in Heaney’s verse... it’s often an indication that the poet means us not only to read the word in its current and local senses, but to inspect the strange shape and length of the shadow it casts.’

Cookstown-born poet Nick Laird, meanwhile, gives a similar sense of the poems becoming more than they first seem: 'Even what appear to be his most simplistic pieces open like doors into rooms full of windows.'

The essays are personal and varied. There is often wit and humour in the readings. Jamie McKendrick wonders if ‘Oysters’ is Heaney’s hymn to cunnilingus? The American poet, Anthony Madrid, marvels, on noting words he will have to look up like ‘scut’ and ’stooked’ in Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, ‘who ever heard of a modern translation being more obscure than its Iron Age original?’

And there is even a nod to the naysayers, so silent since the death. Leontia Flynn is refreshingly honest in confessing to having been one. Justin Quinn repeats what is becoming a literary cliché, of being part of the select few who love Derek Mahon while the rest of us stand like rock fans in the amphitheatre to hear Heaney – missing the fact that many of us discovered both men in small back rooms long before there were any crowds to hear.

Quinn's comment that Heaney is ‘never likely to be a poet of global reach’ jars in a book that is otherwise marked by a warmth and generosity congruent with the man himself. This edition of Poetry Ireland Review is a celebratory issue that does Heaney's poems the honour of serious and personal attention.

The current edition of Poetry Ireland Review is available now from the Poetry Ireland website.