Seamus Heaney at a turf bog in Bellaghy wearing his father's coat, hat and walking stick (Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College)

 

I must admit that I have a soft spot for the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I scored a copy of his book Poems: 1965-1975 when I was a teenager. The collection is a compilation of Heaney’s earliest books, Death of a Naturalist, Door into the Dark, Wintering Out, and North. Along with the collected poems of T.S. Eliot, Heaney’s book was a volume I turned to again and again in my youth.

By that point, I had read my share of classic poetry in school. The conservative religious school I attended was particularly fond of 17th and 18th century poets like Alexander Pope, Edward Taylor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Anne Bradstreet. (We skirted right past Byron and Shelley for obvious reasons—they were considered too racy for the eyes of good boys and girls).

Until college, I had never been exposed to contemporary poetry in school. In fact, I don’t think we ever covered 20th century literature in our English classes. The 19th century was fraught enough. (There was Walt Whitman’s homosexuality and those seemingly benign, but dangerous, transcendentalists to contend with). 20th century literature brought further complications for my teachers—religious doubt, the breakdown of traditional hierarchies, plus radical, new poetic forms. It was easier to avoid such topics entirely.

 

 

At a time when I was drowning in heroic couplets, ballads, and Christian allegories, Heaney and Eliot were lifelines in my education. They were my introduction to contemporary poetry. Eventually I would discover poets like William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, and Robert Creeley, but Heaney was an essential lynchpin. Heaney taught me that any type of life experience, including that of a farmer’s son in rural Ireland, is fodder for the writer.

In his earliest books, you can sense that Heaney is a man caught between worlds—the slogging, rural life of his Irish youth and the world of letters he aspired to be part of. His father was a farmer and cattle-herder, while his mother’s family worked in a local linen mill.

“Digging,” the first poem in Heaney’s first book Death of a Naturalist, is a fine example of Heaney’s ability to evoke the gritty toil of his rural upbringing. It is a nod to his family and neighbors, and yet there is often a sense of discomfort in these early works—the discomfort of an observer who has set himself apart by choosing a different path: the life of a writer. The final line of “Digging” shows the poet attempting to reconcile these conflicted roles.

Heaney is a master of rhythm and language, and his skill is most apparent when his work is read aloud. This video is a montage of various archive clips of Seamus Heaney reciting “Digging.” The montage was put together by the BBC NI and was broadcast in 2009 on “Seamus Heaney: A Life in Pictures.”

(If you’re reading this post in an email, click here to watch the video.)

 

 

 

 

 

About Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney is widely recognized as one of the major poets of the twentieth century. A native of Northern Ireland, Heaney currently lives in Dublin. Heaney taught at Harvard University from 1985 to 2006, where he was a Visiting Professor, and then Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University (1985-1997) and Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence (1998-2006).

Heaney has attracted a readership on several continents and has won prestigious literary awards and honors, including the Nobel Prize. As Blake Morrison noted in his work Seamus Heaney, the author is “that rare thing, a poet rated highly by critics and academics yet popular with ‘the common reader.'” Part of Heaney’s popularity stems from his subject matter—modern Northern Ireland, its farms and cities beset with civil strife, its natural culture and language