by Mary Hanley
(Note: Leaving Cert Poetry questions have in recent years become more sophisticated and focused on particular aspects of the poet’s work. The first ever question on Heaney simply expected the candidate to give their personal reaction to his poems – today the focus is given in the question and these are the major aspects which you must address in your answer. This is then policed firmly by the Examiner’s by their application of the PCLM marking criteria.)
Sample Answer: Would you agree that Seamus Heaney is an essentially backward looking poet, finding answers only in the past?
Soundbites are dangerous and the thesis stated above does not do Heaney or his poetry justice. I agree that Seamus Heaney is “an essentially backward looking poet”. However, I remain steadfastly reserved about Heaney “finding answers only in the past”. This statement does not give the whole scope of his poetry true justice. It only skims the surface, and using Heaney’s own analogy, if we are to truly understand his work we must go “down and down for the good turf” before we can get a true estimation of his worth.
Irishness, tradition and identity remain the cornerstones of Heaney’s poetry. He celebrates local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker. He hankers back to his childhood and the community of that childhood for several reasons. Indeed, part of the excitement of reading his poetry is the way in which he leads you from the parish of Anahorish in County Derry outwards in space and time, making connections with kindred spirits, both living and dead, so that he verifies for us Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the local is universal. For example in ‘The Forge’ he appears at first glance to be looking back with fond nostalgia at the work of the local village blacksmith. However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process. The work of the forge serves as an extended metaphor for the work and craftsmanship of poetry. Even the uncouth and uncommunicative blacksmith of his childhood can create!
Heaney has been branded a nostalgic romantic, a poet whose head remains steadfastly stuck in the sand, and a man when confronted with political violence and trauma regresses back in time to the womb-like warmth of his aunt’s kitchen in Mossbawn. “Sunlight” is seen as a prime example of Heaney’s romanticism and escapism. This poem was, after all, written at the height of the ‘Troubles’. Yet, seemingly in denial of such violence, he hankers back to the security of his childhood. Can it therefore be said that he is essentially a backward looking poet, finding answers only in the past? Undoubtedly, Heaney travels back in time but it is to find answers for the present day realities. On another level, this poem is a search for alternative human values, values no longer to be found in present day society. Heaney can draw strength from his picture of childhood Eden – ‘the helmeted pump’, ‘scones rising to the tick of two clocks’ and ‘love, like a tinsmith’s scoop sunk past its gleam’.
Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and traditions of his parents. ‘All I know is a door into the dark’. Poets, too, have to force themselves to go into the dark, the unknown. Their craft is multi-faceted. They are pioneers, working at the frontier of language. They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp. He translates the atrocities of Northern Ireland by excavating and exploring the past. Heaney can travel through ‘the door into the dark’ only by drawing strength from the past.
The bog plays a major role in the poetry of Heaney. This soft, malleable ground is ‘kind black butter. Melting and opening underfoot’. The bog is the memory of the landscape. It draws us inwards, downwards and backwards through history. Our bogs are as deep as the American prairies are wide. Heaney talks about the ‘Great Irish Elk’ and ‘butter sunk under’. In offering the poet an opportunity to consider its hoard from the past it affords him some deeper understanding of the present.
It is obvious from his poetry that Heaney needs to distance himself from the immediate face of danger. Unlike Longley, Heaney is not eager to touch it, to write about it, to feel its flank and guess the shape of an elephant. He needs space. He uses the rich tapestry of history to give him perspective and a parallel to confront ‘the Troubles’. In ‘The Tollund Man’ the discovery of a book gives Heaney a new perspective to explore the past and examine the present. Make no mistake about it, Heaney here is talking about Northern Ireland. It is difficult to interpret but this poem is a direct response to the continuing murders and violence of the 70’s and 80’s. Heaney’s style may not be as direct as Longley’s, but I believe it is still very effective. I believe he is saying here these atrocities, albeit sometimes more brutal, are just modern day versions of an age old custom. In every society, people are sacrificed to a political or religious goddess, whether it is the goddess Nerthus or Kathleen Ni Houlihan. One common motif linking the three parts of the poem is that of a journey. The sacrificial journey of the Tollund Man, the journey of the brothers ‘flecked for miles along the lines’ and the pilgrimage of Heaney in the final part. I believe there is one more journey to be made and this Heaney skilfully passes on to the reader. We, the readers, have to make the final journey ourselves to discover and interpret, to read between the lines and around the happenings of the time the poem was written, to get at the true meaning of the poem. This analogy can be transferred to all of Heaney’s poems. He doesn’t do all the work for us but the meaning is more valued when we get to the essence of the poem ourselves.
‘Out there in Jutland in the Old Man killing parishes,
I will feel lost, unhappy and at home.’
No one can deny that Heaney is “essentially a backward looking poet”. Yet he makes no apologies for it. The influence of Kavanagh and his writings on Monaghan gave him a strength to continue writing about the traditions and customs of his local community. The cynic may see it as escapism but Heaney finds inspiration about the present in his wealth of memory. He finds a metaphor for the finely crafted work of the poet in such poems as “The Forge”. The bog offers Heaney a perspective. In “Bogland” and “Tollund Man” Heaney finally turns to the security of his youth to find an answer to the shocking realities of violence and death. It stands as an antidote to the brutal reality of the wider society. Heaney’s poetry also stands as an antidote, dealing with harsh issues in a gentle retrospective yet effective way.
‘Then grunts and goes in with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.’
Therefore, I would be in agreement with The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing when it says of Heaney’s poetry that it is, ‘excavating in every sense, reaching down into the ground and back into the past’.