[NetBehaviour] Seamus Heaney

Edward Picot edward at edwardpicot.com
Fri Aug 30 20:13:53 CEST 2013

A friend of mine met me up the High Street at lunchtime, and as he knows 
I'm interested in poetry, he called out to me that Seamus Heaney had 
just died. It was the last thing I was expecting to hear, and it took me 
a moment or two to make sense of what he was saying. "What? Seamus 
Heaney? Bloody hell." Then I found myself going through an extremely 
rapid process of mental readjustment. Right, so he's gone. He's not a 
contemporary poet any more. The contemporary poetry I grew up with is 
now a closed chapter, a thing of the past. So where are we now? What 
have we got left?

When I was at school in the 1970s, it seemed to me and my 
contemporaries, those of us who took an interest in that kind of thing, 
that there were three big voices in British poetry: Philip Larkin, Ted 
Hughes and Seamus Heaney. At the time they were all still alive and 
publishing. Larkin and Hughes tended to be regarded as opposites to each 
other: Larkin was "genteel", nostalgic and inhibited, and wrote rueful 
poems about his own inability to live life to the full; whereas Hughes 
was "violent" and "extreme" and wrote about the natural world in an 
extremely un-picturesque manner, emphasising its sexuality and 
brutality. Heaney, the youngest of the three, was a bit like a synthesis 
of the other two in some respects: some of the forcefulness of Hughes, 
but also some of the restraint and rueful self-awareness of Larkin. 
Then, as the years went by, Heaney became the most celebrated and was 
often regarded as the most "important", largely because he ticked a lot 
of politically-correct boxes: he was a Catholic from Northern Ireland, 
which meant that he came from a disadvantaged minority background, and 
he wrote poems about the Troubles, of which he had first-hand 
experience, which meant that he appealed to middle-class literate 
readers on the mainland (like me), who felt uneasy and guilty about the 
conflict in Northern Ireland but usually had only a vague sense of what 
was going on there, how it had started or what could be done about it.

It became a bit difficult to separate Heaney's real achievements as a 
poet from the reasons for which his poetry attracted attention. His 
"breakthrough" collection was /North/, in which he came out with a 
sequence of poems that linked the situation in Ireland to the subsurface 
of the Irish landscape - in particular to the bodies of sacrificial 
victims which had been exhumed from peat bogs. The present-day Troubles, 
he suggested, could be linked to ancient tribal habits of mind and 
behaviour, and perhaps to an innate human tendency for groups of people 
to define and reassure themselves by committing violent acts on 
scapegoats and outsiders. In other poems he compared English soldiers to 
Roman legionaries, suggesting that they had a more cerebral and less 
instinctive view of life than the Irish natives - the English were 
sky-worshippers, whereas the Irish were earth-worshippers. In retrospect 
this oblique, symbolic and mythologising approach to the subject-matter 
of the Troubles looks both necessary and unhelpful. You can see how it 
would have been essential to Heaney to find his own way of writing about 
them, rather than approaching them head-on; how he was trying to avoid 
getting stuck inside any particular sectarian viewpoint or political 
agenda. On the other hand, some of the poems deal with the Troubles by a 
process of "stacking up" symbolic meanings and associations, as one 
critic put it, rather than talking about the nitty-gritty of what's 
actually happening. The results can sometimes have more than a tinge of 
swotty earnestness about them.

On the other hand, when he writes more directly, some of his finest 
moments are about the Troubles. There's a grimly marvellous poem in 
/Station Island/ when he imagines himself meeting the ghost of a man who 
was shot in the head by sectarians on the steps of his own shop: 
"Through life and death he had hardly aged./There always was an 
athlete's cleanliness/shining off him and except for the 
ravaged/forehead and the blood, he was still that same/rangy midfielder 
in a blue jersey, the one stylist on the team,/the perfect, clean, 
unthinkable victim."

Anyway, now that he's gone it really does feel like the end of an era. 
Larkin, Hughes and Heaney are all dead, and although it certainly isn't 
true to say that their kind of poetry has died with them, the work they 
produced had a kind of cultural centrality which perhaps isn't going to 
come round again. In their different ways they really did help to define 
certain aspects of the British experience in the sixties, seventies and 
eighties - Larkin with his highly-polished "ordinary bloke" poems, 
almost a kind of anti-poetry, certainly anti-pretentious; Hughes with 
his "violent", "ugly" and uninhibited poems, which were also a sort of 
anti-poetry in their way, but of a very different kind; and Heaney with 
his political relevance, his sectarian subject matter and his subtle 
refusal to take sides.

- Edward Picot

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