Down to the Center: Seamus Heaney and His Place

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The 1995 NOBEL PRIZE for literature ognized a lyric writer of great and persisting power: Seamus Heaney, poet of Northern Ireland's landscapes and violence. Perhaps the award had a political meaning as well--to acknowledge Northern Ireland's steps toward a civil peace.

Irish poetry has always been mixed with politics. Britain has been present in Ireland for so long that Irish writers must decide whether to be "Irish" or not and what that means. Even Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize in 1923, did not come by his "indomitable Irishry" spontaneously. He studied to create, or discover, a cultural identity that would give Irish politics coherence and heroism. Heaney has faced the same problems, but he did not have to study rural Ireland or learn, as Yeats said, to "bring everything down" to the test of "contact with the soil." Heaney's contact with "Irishry" was native and inescapable.

Born in 1939, four months after Yeats's death, Heaney was reared on a farm at Mossbawn, County Derry, and educated in parochial schools and at Queen's College, Belfast. His first book, Death of a Naturalist, appeared to acclaim in 1966. For all its skill, the book is modest. It has Heaney's characteristic power of recording an environment, rural places, animals, labor and voices.

In the book's best-known poem Heaney compares his pen to his father's garden spade. The pen digs too, back into time and down into the history of the clan. Years later Donald Davie praised Heaney's "cottage economies" as Homeric--having Homer's lucidity and immediacy about the rituals of a subsistence culture. Yet the pen is articulate; it is not a shovel. It questions and explains, brings memory to bear, makes the environmental fact into a verbal artifact. The act of making a poem introduces distance, detachment and maybe irony.

In 1962, Heaney was introduced to the work of Patrick Kavanagh (1905-1967), a writer from County Monaghan who developed what Heaney called a "sacerdotal" relationship with his home: Kavanagh was both confessor and intercessor for the bleak silences of peasant life. His masterpiece, "The Great Hunger" (1942), begins with a picture that has been iconic for Heaney as well: "Clay is the word and clay is the flesh / Where the potato-gatherers ... move. . " But Kavanagh also illustrated for Heaney the dangers of moving away from the countly. His oblique, embittered "Self portrait" (1964) confirms Heaney's judgment that leaving for Dublin thinned Kavanagh's work by robbing him of his subject. Part of Heaney's sophistication has been the wisdom, or canniness, not to leave Mossbawn too far behind.

A Heaney poem is formal, though not tightly so, with flexible lines bound in stanzas by fresh, inventive half-rhymes. A colloquial line such as "Stand here in front of me" is accompanied by a line like "a furrow assumed into the heavens," with the verb "assumed" introducing a density of implication usually absent from recent American verse. Heaney welds his cottage economies to a range of allusions, from Greek stories to Chikhov, and--not surprising in a moral poet writing out of a Roman Catholic context--to a preoccupation with Dante. Heaney is one of the few active poets who writes convincing erotic poetry, entangling sex with the wonder and vulnerability that give it its power.

The divisions between Mossbawn and Dublin, between land and education, farmer and poet, are overlaid (not obscured) in Heaney's work by the tension between Protestant and Catholic. Heaney became a poet not in Mossbawn or Dublin, but in Belfast, where the barriers of creed and historical anger divide communities that live side by side. "The Other Kind," from Heaney's third volume, Wintering Out (1972), sketches the tact that the best of these communities learn to use toward each other. Protestants and Catholics talk scripture without quite understanding each other's way with it. They attend each other's funerals, embarrassed. The "Docker," from Death of a Naturalist, is more dangerous. …