Socialist Worker

Seamus Heaney: a poet who wasn’t part of the herd

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2370

So. The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney is dead. 

Heaney was once offered the job of British poet Laureate. 

He wrote, “be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen.”

“I like to play with words sometimes,” he said. “Words that are different but sound the same, like heard and herd. 

“And I think a poet wants and needs to be heard but must not be a part of the herd.”

Heaney was a poet of betweens. “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” Between Ireland, England, and America, between formal and free verse, and between plain speech and loading “every rift with ore”.

His poetry was full of references to Celtic mythology and classical literature, but he always meant for it to be read aloud and understood. 

He was criticised for being too “accessible”—as if poetry is supposed to be incomprehensible. 

Though for at least one Daily Telegraph obituary, his leftish views were what made him a bad poet. 

Heaney’s poems about the “troubles” in the books North, Wintering Out and Station Island are polemical without cliche.

In Requiem for the Croppies he wrote, “Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon./The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave./They buried us without shroud or coffin/And in August ... the barley grew up out of our grave.”

In 1995, then US president Bill Clinton quoted Heaney’s play The Cure At Troy during a speech about the Northern Ireland peace process: “When History says, don’t hope/On this side of the grave./But then, once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme.”

The words survive even Clinton’s use. In Heaney’s own words about death, “You left us first, and then those books, behind.”


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Tue 10 Sep 2013, 18:56 BST
Issue No. 2370
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