Seamus Heaney Bogland Essay

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It’s not for nothing that the title of the sequence comes from Wordsworth’s Prelude, a poem about “the growth of a poet’s mind”.

Two poems here are peerless: “A Constable Calls” and “Exposure”, the latter a poignant self-portrait of the poet in his room of thoughts, where he sits “weighing and weighing” what he calls his “responsible tristia”.

I first read him as a student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and I wrote to him at once.

(We had a mutual friend in Glasgow, and that made the connection easy.) Not long after, Seamus visited me in Scotland, reading to a group of students I’d drawn together.

Their ways and means with language fuelled and propelled him into his own work, which involved a rich conversation with his favourite poets: Wordsworth, Frost and Hopkins, Donne and Herbert. He also loved Dante and the Beowulf poet (his translations of their poetry remain peerless – though I wish he’d done a whole Inferno).

The range of his poetic affections is evident in all his writing.He quickened our sense of daily life, putting the work of digging peat or making horseshoes at the centre of his poetry.His skills were remarkable; he had access to the original springs of the language, drew from its deepest roots.One often heard him described as the successor to Yeats, and perhaps in Irish terms that makes sense.But he seemed to me more like the successor to Robert Frost, a poet who heightened the common language of ordinary people, who drew on the resources of pastoral verse going back to the Greeks and Romans.I rhyme To see myself, to set the darkness echoing. His poetry was a divine echo chamber, a place where he listened and watched, gathering what Frost called the “sound of sense” in a discrete and physical manner, amplifying his own voice by rhymes, working on countless linguistic and symbolic levels. I watched with fascination as Seamus dug into the Irish soil, as a poet, finding in the bog a perfect simulacrum of his own art.“Bogland” is one of the finest of these, a poem about the endless layers of Irish history gathered in a bog, in a poem, in the word itself – almost any word, which is a palimpsest, a story of erasures that underlie the current writing.But what matters was the freshness of his entrance into poetry in the late Sixties and Seventies.The first five or six of his books, with their palpable images and idiosyncratic rhythms, their diamond-bright diction, the sweetness and sadness of his subjects – all of this struck countless poetry readers at the time with the force of revelation.I couldn’t answer his question at the time, but in retrospect I could.It doesn’t seem to have damaged the work: he continually added to the storehouse, writing incisive, memorable poems in his later years, including those in his astringent final volume, Human Chain, which contains poems equal to anything he’d written before.


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