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Heaney Agonistes

[»»] Jeffrey Side: The Dissembling Poet: Seamus Heaney and the Avant-garde

[»»] Rob Stanton: ‘A shy soul fretting and all that ’: Heaney, Prynne and Brands of Uncertainty

[»»] The Group in Belfast, 1960s
(Seamus Heaney: The Early Years)

Letters to the Editor from: [»»] Ira Lightman; [»»] John Muckle; [»»] J.P. Craig; [»»] Jamie McKendrick; [»»] David Latané; [»»] Aidan Semmens; [»»] Ira Lightman (2); [»»] Jamie McKendrick (2); [»»] Ira Lightman (3); [»»] Desmond Swords; [»»] Todd Swift and Jeffrey Side; [»»] Jeffrey Side, reply to Desmond Swords; [»»] Jamie McKendrick (3); [»»] Ira Lightman (4); [»»] Jeffrey Side responds to Ira Lightman; [»»] Jeffrey Side responds to Jamie McKendrick; [»»] From Desmond Swords, 2009-04-07; [»»] From Jamie McKendrick, 2009-04-09; [»»] Jeffrey Side responds to Jamie McKendrick; [»»] Andrew Boobier

To send a letter to the editor, click here: [»»]. I would prefer not to change what is published here; if you have second thoughts, please send a second letter.

Andrew Boobier

On Seamus Heaney

Letter to the Editor: 12 June 2009

In response to Jeffrey Side’s request on Facebook about Seamus Heaney’s ‘ascendancy’ (loaded term there!): “How did Heaney accomplish in so relatively short a period the almost universal admiration he now enjoys?”

Firstly, Heaney’s ‘rise’ was not that instantaneous. Death of a Naturalist was published in 1966 and North, which was his ‘breakthrough’ collection, came out in 1975, so that’s 9 years apprenticeship. North’s impact was partly due to its timeliness as a response to the ‘Troubles’ which were at their height in Northen Ireland.

Also, I think Heaney’s decision to give up the day job and try and earn his living writing when he left the North for Wicklow is an important factor. It focused his mind — partly out of necessity to earn a crust from reviews and lectures — on other writers, and from this point Heaney’s starts inserting himself into a particular canon of literary history not only from Ireland (Yeats, Carleton etc) but also the UK mainsteam (Hopkins, Hughes, Hill, Larkin).

His insights, say, in Preoccupations are often great and his prose style is as seductive as his poetry but it’s aimed smack bang in the face of a hungry academic audience — the kind that will engaging with Heaney’s poetry in academic journals and set him as a ‘standard text’ in the UK English curriculum. By fortune or design, through his prose and lecturing, Heaney started creating a standard by which his own work could be judged.

The freelance writer’s life didn’t pay and Heaney went back into academia (eventually Harvard) and his readings of Lowell and Bishop, and especially the politically engaged Eastern Europeans like Mandelstam, Milosz and Herbert started to add real gravitas both to the prose of The Government of the Tongue and a collection like The Haw Lantern (probably the pivotal collection).

Heaney was falling into that grand Romantic-Modernist tradition of the ‘free lyric voice’ among the ruins of the 20th century that the Nobel panel seem so drawn to (e.g. Milosz, Brodsky, Walcott, Paz, Szymborska) and to which he found such eloquent voice in his Oxford lecture, The Redress of Poetry, where he stresses poetry’s need to redress the balance against our own hostile and violent times, or as he puts it: ’the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.’

It is from 1990 when Heaney is professor of poetry at Harvard and Oxford he starts becoming a ‘big hitter’ and I think this is as much due to his ground work of critical prose and lecturing (i.e. creating a discourse of critical acceptance for his poetry) as it is through the field work of poetry itself.

Sorry, this is rather a Cook’s Tour of my take on Heaney’s rise. I started a PhD on Heaney’s prose back in 1990 but abandoned it after a couple of years. I still think that Heaney’s strength to survive a diminishing poetic readership is his ability to create a wider area of operation through astute, generous and highly seductive critical prose. I don’t think any of this is strategic or disingenuous — Heaney seems to be a thoroughly nice and generous chap (I met him only once in his Nobel year) and a real advocate for liberal-humanist poetry (with a certain Catholic mysticism) which happens to fit in with the dominant ideologies within liberal arts departments of many US and UK universities.

Andrew Boobier

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