Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

"The Poetry of Seamus Heaney" by Elmer Kennedy-Andrews (ed), (Palgrave Macmillan, 1998)

I've skimmed 2 poetry books by Heaney, and I've seen poems by him (and interviews with him) in the media, but that hasn't tempted me to read more deeply. I've always assumed that there was more to him than meets the eye, and that he might not have been comfortable with his situation. I didn't realise how much prose-poetry he'd written.

This book is aimed at A-level students and maybe first year undergraduates (I had occasional trouble understanding the essays). I should read more books like this. As well as containing extensive commentary by the editor it reprints extended extracts of reviews and articles that praise or adversely criticise the poet's work. The following quotes caught my eye -


  • "There are, in fact, moments when his literariness turns into downright pedantry" (Al Alvarez)
  • "Heaney [was] pandering to Anglo-American taste and expectations by specialising in the short, well-made, allusive lyric that lends itself well to the kind of practical criticism that prevails in the Anglo-American academy, and is particularly suited to public reading on tours and media events" (Fennell)
  • "from the late 70s onwards, and especially with his two collections in the 80s, he has not grown stronger, widened his scope or dug deeper. ... In his later poetry, partly because the language ignores its audience and sometimes because the subject is obscure, what he is saying is often difficult to penetrate. In short, his poetry - like much good but minor poetry - is poor in word and meaning and says nothing of general relevance" (Fennell)
  • "his poetry is not, in the ordinary sense of the word, musical ... It seldom adds up to the rhythm and melody which, combined with illuminating content, makes people memorise poetry and quote it for its wisdom or delight" (Fennell)
  • "Heaney, unlike many poets, has taken his poetic career seriously as a career, and has managed it accordingly" (Fennell)
  • It's been pointed out that his identification of Ireland with Female, Soil, and dialect; and colonisers as Male and English may be unnuanced.
  • Eoghan Harris is amongst many who've questioned Heaney's contemporary relevance - "I am not sure that his poetry has much to say to modern Ireland. It comes from haunts of coot and fern. It deals with pre-Christian people who put bodies in Danish bogs, not post-Christian people who put them in binliners. It is literally bogged down in the past"
  • In his review of "North", Ciaran Carson wrote "'Strange Fruit', for example, refuses to fall into the glib analyses which characterize too many of the poems"
  • According to Edna Longley, the problem with North "is that Heaney has allowed his poetry to become the mouthpiece of 'a sophisticated version of Nationalist Ideology'"

Postmodernist Heaney

  • "Heaney's preoccupation with language and with questions of authorial control makes him part of a still larger modern intellectual movement which has emphasized that language is not a transparent medium" (Blake Morrison, 1982)
  • "Heaney's ambivalent attitude to homecoming expressed as a double-movement of attraction and revulsion, intense questing and sceptical questioning - bears a certain resemblance to Martin Heidegger's notion of the poet's 'search for Being as a dialectical moment towards "home" through the "unhomely"'" (Richard Kearney, 1988)
  • "With Station Island, Heaney becomes a postmodern poet ... in the sense defined by Roland Barthes""(Alistair Davies, 1997)


  • "vanishings are a central concern of all his work". "Whether rendered in terms of dying rural crafts in the first two collections; of the 'disappeared' of history in Wintering Out and of mentors and lost contemporaries in 'Station Island'; or of the whole world of experience streaming into nothingness ... as he shores the dismayed eloquence of The Haw Lantern against its ruins" (Patrick Crotty)
  • Stan Smith sees Station Island as a volume "full of departures and returns". Alistair Davies sees in it a "a recognition of language as both place of necessary exile and site of perpetual return home".
  • "Whereas in the early works, Heaney usually talks of home in terms of a personal quest for self-identity, in his later collections - and particularly North or Station Island - he begins to interpret homecoming more in terms of a linguistic search for historical identity" (Richard Kearney)
  • "The poetry after North is usually discussed in terms of Heaney's struggle to move from the Antaean darkness into the Herculean light, to find a balance between the claims of attachment and an ideal of personal and artistic freedom ... Throughout Seeing Things Heaney dwells on what is seen as much as why it is seen the way it is. His poems continually draw attention to gates, thresholds, borders, limits, lines, doors, ceilings. roofs, circles and squares. The situation he obsessively delineates is one where the mind comes up against a confining boundary, is checked by it, but then is stimulated to transcend it." (Henry Hart)
  • "after all that 'Heaviness of being. And poetry/ Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens', Heaney wanted 'the heart to lighten.' ... The Spirit Level seeks out a more slippery and transitional state of being where even in moments of balance, there are shivers of movement" (Nicholas Jenkins)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Tim

    To be totally honest, I always found Heaney's work rather boring until he won me over with his translation of Beowulf. Clive James hardly mentions him in his Poetry Notebook. It will be interesting to see where his reputation stands in another decade or two.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish