Heaney was bad at politics, but great at poetry

Heaney's politics may invite questioning, but his command of language will continue to inspire.

Bernie Whelan

Topics Culture

I grew up with Seamus Heaney. Like many others, I studied his most famous poem ‘Digging’ at school and later taught ‘Death of a Naturalist’, both of which always evoked the rural childhood of my own Irish parents. On hearing the news of his death, I remembered how he once transported an academic audience to the west of Ireland when reading ‘Postscript’ alongside the master piper, Liam O’Flynn:

Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

In ‘Sheelagh na Gig’, Heaney appropriated a symbol of Irish cultural diversity and teeming fertility. It is a good example of how he combined the subjective with the public, the personal with the communitarian, implying a connection between the depth of the creative self and the depth of the Irish landscape and history:

Her hands holding herself
are like hands in an old barn
holding a bag open.

I was outside looking in
at its lapped and supple mouth
running grain…

We look up to her…

grown-up, grown ordinary,
seeming to say,
‘Yes look at me to your heart’s content
but look at every other thing.

(Opened Ground, pp234-5)

Poetry is the proper realm for image and myth, where questions of historical truth or political commitment are irrelevant to whether writing succeeds as literature.

While Yeats, the first Irish writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, is famed for his haughtiness and his passion, Heaney, the second to receive the ultimate literary accolade, is distinguished by his workmanlike approach and his carefully measured responses: ‘Poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated.’ (The Redress of Poetry, pp 7-8)

But the sequence of poems which used archaeologist PV Glob’s Bog People to draw a continuity between the sacrificial practices of Iron Age people and the ‘psychology of the Irish men and Ulstermen who do the killing’ did simplify the complex reality out of which the conflict in Ireland was generated. North presented an ahistorical view of the Irish Catholic psyche. Edna Longley argued that ‘it is a book of martyrs rather than of tragic protagonists’. This was a simplification that could render nationalism less threatening from the point of view of the peace process; passive victims could be incorporated, proactive protagonists could not.

Our mother ground
is sour with the blood
of her faithful,

they lie gargling
in her sacred heart

(Opened Ground, p125)

As ‘the artful voyeur’ of his much-studied poem ‘Punishment’, Heaney claims he ‘understands’ violence in the Catholic community, neither approving nor disapproving, but his use of the word ‘tribal’ cannot sustain this neutrality (Opened Ground, 118). British propaganda condemned the violence in Northern Ireland as a tribal feud, but the Provisional IRA consistently denied sectarian motivations and blamed British occupation for the war. In an interview with Heaney in the first issue of The Crane Bag, Seamus Deane suggested that atavistic rootedness is in fact a source of poetic power. Myth is seen as representing the primitive dimension of public consciousness which any real understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland must take account of. This approach claimed the poet shared a bond with ordinary people. Yet the suggestion that the violence was motivated by tribal loyalties was a myth which denied the complex political motivations of the historical agents involved.

However, Heaney’s poetic responses gradually withdrew from the violent atavisms of North. In The Government of the Tongue he used St John’s Gospel to give an ethereal authority to poetry, where Jesus ignores the Pharisees’ demands for judgment on an unfaithful wife, writing in the ground with his finger before telling those without sin to cast the first stone (Finders Keepers, p189). Heaney’s claim for poetry was that it marks time, like Jesus’ writing in the dust, with such deliberation that it can focus ‘the crowd’ on its own failings before it disperses (Finders Keepers, p189).

Heaney constantly worried over what motivated his own writing, displaying a Catholic propensity for craw-thumping that disarmed critics and allowed him to retain the moral high ground. Like a plain-clothes priest walking the peace line and offering absolution to those on every side while seeking it himself, he never denied the influence of his nationalist background but constantly destabilised expectations of what this might mean.

‘The poet is stretched between politics and transcendence’ (Finders Keepers, p119) and so cannot be confined to one camp, any more than Sweeney can be confined to one tree. Heaney declared his aim to ‘bring the frontiers of the country into alignment with the frontiers of writing’ – that is, into ‘the shape of an integrated literary tradition’ (Redress of Poetry, p199). His poetry emphasised a sense of belonging in the cultural landscape so that what is important is not what people strive for, but who they are and where they come from. No one can deny his impact on contemporary literature, a leading role he consciously adopted in the tradition of poets like Yeats and Robert Frost, both of whom he greatly admired.

His poetry has been celebrated for its intense sense of place and the sounding of an autochthonous note, but also for its extraordinary equilibrium. His claims for Northern Irish poetry in particular were that it demonstrates ‘a process of self-healing, neither deliberately provocative nor culpably detached’ (Finders Keepers, p133) and this accounts for his wider international success as a poet. He was culturally rooted, but never gave offence. His Nobel lecture in 1995 took a position on what he believed poetry should aim to do: it should provide ‘an order true to the impact of external reality and… sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being’. (Opened Ground, p 454).

Heaney kept his work relevant, engaged and self-critical but always insisted on the imperative ‘to redress poetry as poetry, to set it up as its own category, an eminence established and a pressure exercised by distinctly linguistic means’ (Finders Keepers, p260):

Post-this, post-that, post-the-other, yet in the end
Not past a thing. Not understanding or telling
Or forgiveness.
But often past oneself,
Pounded like a shore by the roller griefs
In language that can still knock language sideways.

(Electric Light, p 61).

In a strange reversal of fortune, Irish writers no longer feel the pressure of Irish history as a force compelling them to respond. Instead, Irish history has become domesticated as a tourist industry, a matter for nostalgic celebration or identity construction but not something that threatens any seismic change. Heaney squeezed a great many well-made poems out of the hand he was dealt. What more can we ask of an artist?

Where the checkpoint used to be.
Where the rebel boy was hanged in ’98.
Where negative ions in the open air
Are poetry to me.

(Electric Light, p 3)

I always return to Heaney’s poems for the distilled emotion and intense beauty generated by this, his astonishing command of language.

Bernie Whelan is a reviewer for Extra! Extra! and was previously an advice worker at the London Irish Women’s Centre.

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