There was a new self-consciousness, yes, and probably some bewilderment when the book was published. But confidence, too, from the fact of having written the poems. In 1966 Marie and I were living on a housing estate on the outskirts of Belfast, a characterless sort of a place, and I remember getting my six free copies, probably in late April. The actual book looked very good: a lime-green and solid-pink dust jacket, and on the back a list of the Faber poets. Fabulous names: Auden, Eliot, Hughes, Larkin, Lowell, MacNiece, Spender. It was certainly strange.
I don't actually know Heaney's poetry all that well, but I like what I know. As an O-Level student in the early 1980s, several of his poems were on our curriculum; the one that sticks in my mind is "Digging", which is something of a mission statement:
DiggingThis book, published in 2009, goes through Heaney's early life in rural Northern Ireland and then through each of his poetry collections one by one, and certainly whets my appetite to become more familiar with him. It misses of course Book VI of The Æneid, published only after Heaney's death. I found some unexpected personal resonances - when I was a Fellow of the Institute of Irish Studies in 1995-96, many of the people who had worked alongside Heaney during his time at QUB in 1966-72 were still around, including Edna Longley for whom I did some editing, and whose "Cliquey Clerihew" must be quoted:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Michael LongleyI was struck last year by Ruth Padel's observation of the importance of Northern Ireland and the Troubles to English-language poetry in Europe. It's uncontroversial that Heaney's voice was one of the clearest in this phenomenon - pulling together words and phrases to capture a way of looking at things, anchored in all the wider traditions of world literature but firmly rooted in Castledawson and Bellaghy.
Is inclined to feel strongly
About being less famous
There's lots of stuff here - the importance of translation (The Æneid is mentioned, Beowulf isn't); the famous encounter with Danny Morrison (disputed by the only other person who was there); the importance of place - Wicklow, America, Greece; and how he found out he had won the Nobel Prize a day and a half after the rest of the world knew. Even with only a passing knowledge of Heaney's work, I found it fascinating.
I met Seamus Heaney only once, a chance encounter in a pub (the Foggy Dew in Temple Bar in Dublin, some time around 1989); he offered to buy me a drink on the basis of having known my parents in his Belfast days, but I was too shy to accept. I wish I had. I learned a lot from this book, and I would have learned something from even ten minutes' conversation with him. You can get it here.
This was the top book I had acquired in 2013 but not yet read. Next on that list is Halo: The Thursday War, by Karen Traviss.
Incidentally, here is the second poem from Heaney's third collection, "Bog Oak" from Wintering Out.
Bog OakYou can get Wintering Out here.
A carter's trophy
split for rafters,
a cobwebbed, black,
under the first thatch,
I might tarry
with the moustached
dead, the creel-fillers,
or eavesdrop on
their hopeless wisdom
as a blow-down of smoke
struggles over the half-door
and mizzling rain
blurs the far end
of the cart track.
The softening ruts
lead back to no
'oak groves', no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings.
Perhaps I just make out
encroached upon by
geniuses who creep
'out of every corner
of the woodes and glennes'
towards watercress and carrion.