Poetry needs particularity if it is to resonate with the reader, details of the poet’s life and times that are only his yet are recognisable to anyone. Seamus Heaney has been through childhood, grown up, experienced love and loss and physical frailty, just as we all do, and this is the stuff of his work. The everyday sings its beauty through Heaney’s skilful employment of technique, his adaptation of verse-forms, his non-literary lexicon, but the numinous is implied despite this eschewal of the overtly ‘poetic’. For poetry needs mystery too, the private images that are closed to the reader and symbolise the poet’s human uniqueness in contrast to his human universality. Yet that secret world too brings poet and reader together; for each one of us has his store of memories, the victories and failures, the pains and joys, which is unknowable to others. In our privacy, our loneliness, still we are united through language with other human beings.
Footfalls of the past echo through Heaney’s images, telescoping time’s passing into an emotional present, the individual talent focussed through the poetic tradition back to a time when the bard in Ireland had the ear of the community. He transmits the spirit of the griot, the song of the troubadour; his translations are the bridge to his bardic heritage. The almost hidden references to Eliot and Joyce, evocations of Virgil, resonances of Dante, never seem out of place in these paeans to the quotidian life. A suppleness of rhythm stretches through every poem, form becoming the canvas on which Heaney paints, never becoming bonds that he must struggle against. His words are simple words: archaisms, regional words, words of earth and bog and stone, words of rural bluntness contrasted with the Latin of the scholar, the boy who was part of his small, tough world but was already moving away from it through education, the poet now looking back at his younger selves, different now, a man come through innocence and experience, but still the same, still the young boy going through his dad’s pockets looking for cigarette butts, remembering the feel of the plough’s handle vibrating now in the palm of his ageing, stroke-numbed hand. Recurring imagery of the pen, the tool with which Heaney works just as his father worked with the plough, marks the distance between his younger self, the boy on the farm, the son of a cattleman, and who he is today, the internationally renowned chronicler of his culture, the respected academic, the Nobel Laureate. Now a man at peace with what he has become, this great artificer of language deftly and subtly eliminates time and distance in a reverie of newness.