Five writers' views on Seamus Heaney ahead of Edinburgh Book Festival
Ruth Padel, Ron Butlin, Bashabi Fraser, Alan Gillis and John Burnside on Irish lyricist
This article is from 2012.
I’ve carried Heaney’s work with me all over the place, both his poetry and his always illuminating criticism. He gets to the heart every time. When I first met him, the book I shyly asked if he’d sign was Station Island: such innovative, free, dark work. He’s a wonderful example of so many things at once. That absolute delight in words, exploring their depths, trusting them, making them shine new. He’s always renegotiating the balance between form and breaking new ground; between the shared tradition – ‘handing on’ to others – and the knowledge that every poet has to do what they do on their own.
Shortly after publishing my first collection of poetry, I was introduced to Seamus Heaney. Having managed to say, ‘hello, Mr Heaney’, I was struck dumb: Heaney was one of my heroes. Moments later he left, giving me a friendly, if rather puzzled, smile. Later on, I saw him coming along the corridor. There was no exit nearby, only a huge potted plant. I edged towards it. Glancing over at me as he passed, Heaney very ostentatiously patted the side pocket of his jacket – my book was sticking out from it! He gave me a smile, and walked on. A great poet who is also a kind and generous man.
I first heard Seamus Heaney reading from his translation of ‘Beowulf’ at the StAnza Festival in St Andrews. For me, as a poet, it was a pilgrimage fulfilled. That evening I had seen and heard the voice of the poet of poets as he transported his audience through his masterful and accessible rendition of the Anglo-Saxon epic, proving just how modern great poetry can be. Though his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, came out in 1966, I started reading his work in earnest only in the early 1980s. I have found his poetry working like a double-edged weapon, rooted in the real world, while it has the ability to transcend it. Just as in ‘Stern’, Heaney stands on a ‘pierhead’ watching Ted Hughes ‘row out’, for me, Heaney stands at the helm of poetry in English. I hope I can always see him as I stand at the pierhead, with the knowledge of that promise of being transported ‘slowly’ by his poetry.
That a poet so striking for his earthy sensual vernacular, thick with the world, was able to conjure such a freeing and fresh sense of the numinous in Seeing Things, without losing the ooze and grain of his linguistic signature, was one of the great artistic achievements of our times. The impalpable and the evanescent are still being summoned or discovered through the textured presence, palpable thingyness and measured surety of the verse. But in his more recent work there’s also a thronging sense of hurt and unease along the borders, a vulnerability mixed with benevolent fortitude, which creates one of the richest and most affecting tones of modern poetry. Forget the hype and read the work. Regarding what he calls the there-you-are-now and where-are-you of poetry itself, Heaney’s the Godfather.
One of my favourite Heaney lines crops up at the end of ‘Sandstone Keepsake’ from Station Island, where the speaker describes himself as ‘one of the venerators’. Ever since I first read it in 1984, that phrase has stayed with me, and I think it beautifully expresses the most basic imperative of anyone who dwells on this Earth, which is to treat the mystery of the self and the mystery of the other, not only with equal respect, but with equal and tender reverence. Heaney’s work is full of this reverence, this tenderness, this sense that the world can be recovered and lyrically inhabited, through wonder.
Seamus Heaney (with Andrew O’Hagan and Karl Miller), 18 Aug, 6.30pm, £10 (£8); John Burnside, 17 Aug, noon, £10 (£8); Ron Butlin, 18 Aug, 8.30pm, £10 (£8); Bashabi Fraser, 23 Aug, 3.30pm, £7 (£5); Alan Gillis, 23 Aug, 8.30pm, £10 (£8); Ruth Padel, 26 Aug, 10.15am, £10 (£8). All events at Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888.