There is a particular grunt, sputter, and song in a Heaney poem: "Perch on their water perch hung in the clear Bann River/Near the clay bank in alder dapple and waver." This is another poet in love with his language --... [more]
There is a particular grunt, sputter, and song in a Heaney poem: "Perch on their water perch hung in the clear Bann River/Near the clay bank in alder dapple and waver." This is another poet in love with his language -- specifically, the cadences of the Irish tongue. The sounds of clattering, bumping, and sliding words -- held together by the echo of repeated vowels -- propel the poems along.
Most often his works involve a story, or at least a speaker angling from his own particular place and time. A memorial poem about a friend, "Casualty" (from "Field Work," 1979), typifies Heaney's skill at characterization. A personality with all its tricks, habits, and postures emerges in the midst of the man's living:
Sure-footed but too sly,
His deadpan sidling tact,
His fisherman's quick eye
And turned, observant back.
Comparisons to Yeats are unavoidable. Like Yeats, Heaney culls much of his subject matter from Irish mythology, history, and contemporary politics. But Heaney was raised on a farm and his poetry takes a more humble approach to its subjects. His view of nature and humanity is earthy and homespun, tough yet nicely finessed.
For Heaney the ancestral world, the invisible world of ghosts and myths, is inseparable from the visible -- and it's filled with ripe material for poems. In the mid-'80s he wrote the "Station Island" series, considered some of his most daring works. Among the ghosts the poet encounters in the poems is James Joyce, who urges him to find his "own echo-soundings, searchings, probes, allurements,/elver gleams in the dark of the whole sea." He tells Heaney, "The English language belongs to us."
Another series makes frequent references to the "bog people," who were murdered over 2000 years ago. Many of their preserved corpses have been excavated from bogs all over Northern Europe. In Heaney's hands the violent and mysterious nature of their deaths reflects the current conflict in Northern Ireland. Heaney has been criticized over the years for refusing to take a firm stance in the Irish conflict. To his detractors he says, "The way in is usually not a triumphal arch but a kind of mousehole, or by Ariadne's thread: something reliable but very small."
A Nobel laureate (1995), Heaney beat out Harry Potter's inventor to win the Whitbread in 1999 (a rare victory for poetry). His status makes him a likely candidate to replace the late Ted Hughes as Britain's poet laureate, though it's been suggested Heaney might decline because of his "green passport." His long poetic run (he's still publishing original poems) includes a stint at Oxford and an ongoing position at Harvard. In addition to the prestige he's gathered from his numerous awards and critical acclaim, Heaney may have won a spot in the pantheon of literary immortals with his year 2000 translation of the ur-classic "Beowulf." [show less]