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Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996

By Seamus Heaney

Even before he won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, for what the Swedish Academy of Letters called his ‘works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth’, Seamus Heaney was already the most famous Irish poet of his generation, known both at home and abroad even to people who might not usually read, or necessarily know very much about, poetry. This popularity has been a mixed blessing for him, especially as it was gained on foot of the pastoralism of his early work, which drew on and explored his rural background, leading many to suppose that he has not moved on since then, and to accusations of having evaded the realities of late twentieth century life. This criticism has surfaced once again in the critical reception of Opened Ground, which contains work from all of Heaney’s collections up to now, from Death of a Naturalist in 1966 to The Spirit Level in 1996, a greater number of poems than would usually appear in a Selected, but fewer than would make up a Collected, belonging somewhere in between the two categories. The usual strictures were expressed most stridently in a review written by the English-based, Australian poet Peter Porter for The Daily Telegraph, in which he extended the argument about failure to engage with the vices and virtues of the modern world to encompass all Irish poets, with the notable exceptions of Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson, saying that Ireland alone among English-speaking countries has been granted this enviable immunity.

But a trawl through Opened Ground, and perhaps most of all a reading of ‘Crediting Poetry’, his Nobel acceptance lecture which is also included here, reveals the tension that has always existed in Heaney’s mind and art between social responsibility and creative freedom. He has always been a brilliant essayist (in fact, very often I prefer reading his critical writings over his poetry, although that probably says more about some gross temperamental deficiency in me, rather than casting aspersions on his creative writing, even if the best criticism is always highly creative anyway). In ‘Crediting Poetry’ he traces his journey from the nature lyrics he started with, to how he was forced to become a poet of public as well as private life in response to Northern Ireland’s descent into violence after 1968, ‘a quarter century of life waste and spirit waste’ as he puts it. Indeed, it is odd that Heaney is often accused, generally by sectarian extremists seeking to enlist him for their cause, of having shirked the Northern situation, especially when one considers the darkness of works such as North and Station Island. Then, another change of direction came a few years ago, when he stopped acting like ‘some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world’, and began ‘not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in spite of them’ to straighten up and ‘make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous’, which is reflected in the volumes Seeing Things and The Spirit Level.

It has been a remarkable trajectory, from being the child who first encountered the word ‘Stockholm’ on the face of the radio dial in the kitchen of the traditional thatched farmstead on his family’s farm, to the man standing on the platform in Stockholm as guest of the Nobel Foundation, an outcome ‘not just beyond expectation’ for his younger self, but ‘simply beyond conception’. In the intervening years, he has learned how to ‘adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible’. But what artist has ever lived in ideal times? They don’t award you the Nobel Prize for Literature for nothing.

As well as having suffered because of his popularity, Heaney has also been a victim of his own niceness and generosity of spirit. There is nothing in the rule-book to say that writers have to be nice people, but neither does being a writer grant a license to not be a nice person, as many writers seem to think and many audiences to expect. He signed his earliest poems ‘Incertus’, the uncertain one who crept before he walked, and then identified with the mythical figure Antaeus, who lost his strength if he was lifted off the ground. In a subsequent poem he had Hercules defeat Antaeus. As this book ably demonstrates, the ground has been opened, in a quietly earth-shattering way, and despite his elevation, Heaney shows no signs of falling, of losing his power.

First published in The World of Hibernia


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