Seamus Heaney at Seventy

by John Boland

Despite his tousled mass of silver hair, it registers as a small shock that Seamus Heaney is now seventy – despite his status as grand old man of Irish poetry, it’s his infectiously boyish openness to both life and literature that has always distinguished him from his peers.

Yet grand old man he is and has been for a long time. Indeed, from the outset, this eldest son of a farmer was manifestly that thing apart – a major poet. His first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), published when he was only 27, had the identity and assurance only possible from someone who knew exactly what he wanted to say and who had already created an original and unmistakeable style in which to say it.

Rooted in rural rather than urban realities, it conjured up a world that was often harsh but that was filtered through a humane imagination and rendered with an exact eye. From that collection, Digging and Follower became instant, and eventually much-anthologised, classics, and there were classics, too, in his second collection, Door into the Dark, published in 1969, where already the poet was widening his concerns and his technical range.

These extended even further in succeeding volumes, where personal lyrics took second place to meditations on the roots and nature of violence – an inescapable subject for someone of his background, though he has always been careful not to become narrowly political or partisan in his verse.

Since then, his presence has loomed over Irish poetry and has tended to overshadow the work of such notable poets as Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. The Nobel prize merely confirmed his dominant presence, though it was natural to fear that the poetry that followed the Swedish award might somehow reflect his new global status and become untypically self-conscious.

But that would have been to underestimate both the poet and the man, and he has continued to write verse of thrillingly refined urgency, clarity and depth and with an exhilarating passion, too – as when, rounding a headland in Clare,

big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And  catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

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