Seamus Heaney: The Words Worth Saying

By Ratiner, Steven | The Christian Science Monitor, October 7, 1992 | Go to article overview

Seamus Heaney: The Words Worth Saying


Ratiner, Steven, The Christian Science Monitor


THERE are few poets of this century who have received as much critical acclaim and public scrutiny as Ireland's Seamus Heaney. In reviewing his recent collection, "Seeing Things," a London Times critic compared its arrival with "Keats' `Odes' and Milton's 1645 collection." Mr. Heaney bristles visibly at the mention of this - not simply because of his inherent modesty; as a professor of literature, he regards the past masters too highly to count himself comfortably in their company. Ironically, the great expectations his work has generated serve to appropriate some measure of his freedom - something too hard-won and cherished to be easily surrendered.

From his earliest books, he was hailed as "the new Yeats," an honor which carried with it an enormous burden. As a native of County Derry, he felt pressure to write more about "the Troubles" of Northern Ireland. He was virtually accused of abandonment when, seeking the solitude to further his work, he moved his family south to the Irish Republic. Eventually he began to spend a portion of each year teaching at Harvard University. He is considered today, quite simply, one of the finest writers in the English language. And he has used his prominence to introduce American and European audiences to a whole host of new Irish talents.

Aside from the masterful craftsmanship and utter dignity of his verse, what I find most remarkable about Seamus Heaney is the way, through all the pressures, he has determinedly steered his own intuitive course, creating a body of work that is scholarly enough to include translations from the ancient Irish, Latin, and Greek, and personal enough to offer us lyrics of astonishing beauty about family, friends, the battles of conscience and the landscape of his homeland. His protests notwithstanding, the interlocking poems of "Seeing Things" will indeed be considered one of his most memorable achievements, an intimate yet universal vision. Heaney remains a solitary player on literature's grand stage; we in the audience can take pleasure from the rich music of his poetry and take heart from the persistent labor of his spirit.

Steven Ratiner: With teaching, lecturing, and international readings, yours is a very public literary life. Does all that help or hinder the writing of the poems?

Seamus Heaney: Well, I think your social self and your writing self is a very puzzling relationship. I mean, I don't know what the relationship was between the Shakespeare that you met in the tavern and the Shakespeare who wrote. This is the real problem for a poet especially - to find access to that which is not your usual self, to find access to that which is not codified, to admit up through the organized and efficiency-levels, the more free-ranging and sportive level... .

I have had the belief that the ... busy life puts the other part on its mettle... . I don't know what is the correct proportion between will and waiting in lyric poetry. There is evidence that if you are a Yeats, that the will to keep it moving is very important. There's evidence that if you are not a Yeats, that the will is just cranking out material. Every act of poetry is some kind of strategic engagement between the passive and the active parts.

I think there are few poets today who have as pronounced a musical charge to their verse as you do. Clearly the ear is as important as the eye in reading your poems.

I would have to say this - that verse is a physical phenomenon. The sound of poetry seems to be preeminent. If it doesn't have a melody or a rhythm or a meter or some kind of physical emanation, then it just becomes a set of semantic signals on the page. It doesn't hold as verse.

Verse is justified differently from prose. Prose is justified by a printer. The printing term to "justify" means that you print from one straight edge to the other ... . Each printer can justify a piece of prose in a different way, and the rhythm of prose doesn't depend on the justification of the writer at all. …

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