Comment: After Seamus Heaney
Dr Stephen Mooney reflects on the death of Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.
Seam Heaney's passing last week, at the age of 74, marks, I think, a milestone that many of us in the poetry world will remember as significant. Heaney was a huge figure in poetry, and beyond. He has been described as the greatest and most well known Irish poet since W.B. Yeats. In terms of conventional (or traditional) poetry, I would go even further, and say that up until his death he was the greatest and most well-known living poet writing in the English language. As a current literary figure, he stood head and shoulders above the others in his field, in his command of language, his skill at composition, and the poise of his poetry. He was a Nobel Prize winner, of course, amongst other achievements. That such a figure should be, once again, an Irishman (one thinks of Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, and so on) would be, I think, something that Heaney appreciated in his modest way. His work in Wintering Out (1973), North (1975) and Station Island (1984) in particular established and cemented his credentials as a writer concerned with Irish political and cultural issues, often in the face of strong criticism, and one of strong convictions. He famously turned down the position of Poet Laureate in Britain in 1999, in some part for political reasons, but strongly resisted efforts by militant Irish republicanism to co-opt him and his work into their cause.
His poetry has much of the wider world about it, bigger and more expansive than Ireland in its relevance.
He is to be praised for his efforts and commitment to making known the poetry and importance of another Irish poet, one whose stature throughout the latter part of the twentieth century has grown and grown, Patrick Kavanagh, and Heaney himself might be happier with the description of himself as ‘the greatest Irish poet since Kavanagh’!
He was a bigger figure again than this, though, as was that poet he is most often mentioned alongside, Yeats. His poetry has much of the wider world about it, bigger and more expansive than Ireland in its relevance.
I encountered Heaney most significantly in school, in Ireland, in the 1970s and 80s – I still remember the shiver than went down my spine at the shock of the final line of his poem ‘Mid-Term Break’, which talks about the experience of the death of a child from a wise child’s perspective, where we learn just how young the dead child was: "A four foot box, a foot for every year." It still has that effect on me today. Heaney’s poetry has many such instances in it, and it is right, I think, to call him a great poet.
It is right, I think, to call him a great poet.
Where my interest in poetry, and the poetry I’m interested in, diverges from the trajectory that Heaney followed with his work, and, to some degree, represented in twentieth century poetry, is on the points of contemporaneity and Irishness. Heaney’s poetry is, in some ways, more concerned with a past-tense version of the contemporary, and of national (Irish) identity, whereas the innovative, contemporary, and often experimental poetry that I find most interesting today, and that we have a focus on in Surrey, is very much concerned with the late-modern reality of living and language – so not just about what is happening now as material for poetry, but the language, techniques, and modes of now and of the future – what is available to us as poetry and as writers of poetry.
It is in this sense that I think Heaney’s passing is of additional significance. He was a great figure in poetry, whose writing captured something essential in the twentieth century experience. His work did so, though, in quite a traditional way, a way that seems less relevant to our present day and future contemporaneity than do the innovative practices and poetry of ‘contemporary’ writers like Lee Harwood, Maggie O’Sullivan, Tom Raworth, Bill Griffiths, Basil Bunting, JH Prynne, Bob Cobbing, Allen Fisher, Sean Bonney, Denise Riley (to name but a few writing in the UK), and many others. His death represents, I feel, the passing of not just a great writer, but of a literary period of traditional poetry in English. The challenge now for traditional poetry and for innovative poetry is to engage with language and poetic form in ways that address our present and future experience of ‘the poem’.
Dr Stephen Mooney is a poet and publisher. He is Programme Director for MA Creative Writing at the University of Surrey,