Seamus Heaney, 1939 – 2013: a personal view
By David J McDonagh
It says something about the status of poetry in society that many people (though clearly not everyone) will only remember Seamus Heaney’s poems from their school English books.
Contrast this with the memories that are stirred when a singer dies. Perhaps you remember which of their hits was playing at key moments of your life: when you proposed to your partner, or when you left home to work abroad, or when your first child was born.
I have to confess that I cannot remember studying Heaney in school: I am open to correction here, but I don’t think he was on the syllabus in the early 1980s. I discovered him much later, and did so only because I fancied myself as a poet, and maintained an interest in poetry beyond my school days.
The poem of Heaney’s, which most people seem to have carried with them in their hearts, is ‘Mid-Term Break’, which recalls the tragic death of his young brother. Since becoming a parent, I have winced every time I have read the words, “the bumper knocked him clear. [/] A four foot box, a foot for every year.” Perhaps this poem is so well-loved because so many of us have been among the bereaved at an Irish wake or funeral, and have experienced the warmth and sympathy of neighbours, along with the awkwardness of being thrust into the limelight in ways we would not have chosen.
It is a cliché, but true nonetheless, that Heaney made the ordinary seem extraordinary. In my teens, I spent many a reluctant day helping out on the turf bog. As each layer of turf was cut away, the imprints of the slane, or turf spade, left a pattern on the layer below. I had forgotten this minor detail until I read ‘The Tollund Man’, where Heaney beautifully describes this pattern of imprints as “the turfcutters’ [/] Honeycombed workings.”
More profoundly, Heaney used ‘The Tollund Man’, and similiar poems about ancient corpses found in bogs, to comment on the Troubles in his own part of the world. Instead of running for cover, Heaney found ways of exploring the many disturbing issues thrown up by events in Northern Ireland, and did not flinch from putting his ‘own side’, the Catholic minority, under the microscope.
Neither did Heaney flinch from expressing unease with his own poetic response to atrocities: in ‘Station Island’ the ghost of his slain cousin Colum McCartney scorns Heaney for “having saccharined [his] death with morning dew” in an earlier poem, ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’.
Heaney was probably being hard on himself, as the earlier poem powerfully contrasts the pastoral scene of cattle, by the shoreline, with the brutality of the murder.
For a long time, I had a sense of Heaney as an ‘establishment’ figure: even in the days following his death, one of the recurring images on TV was footage of him shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth. Whether or not my impressions were accurate, I regret that they put me off truly discovering his work.
Since deciding, a few years ago, to take myself seriously as a poet, I have scarcely read a book about poetic technique or criticism that did not mention Heaney’s tremendous influence. As part of my own self-imposed apprenticeship to the craft, I read ‘Opened Ground’ a volume of Heaney’s work from the 1960s to the 1990s, alongside Helen Vendler’s book, ‘Seamus Heaney’, a major critique of Heaney in the same period.
I have since read some of his more recent work, especially his collection, ‘District and Circle’, and had become used to associating Heaney with the phrase, ‘one of the greatest living poets’.
There is an old metaphor, once used by Isaac Newton, about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. For me, and for many young (and not so young) poets, trying to become established, Seamus Heaney, even though he is no longer physically with us, is undoubtedly one of those giants.
Originally published in David J McDonagh’s blog on 1st September, 2013: