Seamus Heaney: a talent in the round

Sally Richardson reviews Finders Keepers: selected prose 1971-2001 by Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber £20 hbk

THIS COLLECTION of thirty years’ worth of Seamus Heaney’s lectures, journalism and literary criticism is a real treasure trove.

As a critic, Heaney understands more than just the nuts and bolts of how poetry works, but also what provides the spark that turns mere verse into great poetry.

Poetry involves the imagination in exploring moral and emotional possibilities and articulating experience -- very much what Shelley was getting at when he wrote: “Poetry strengthens that faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.”

Heaney doesn’t save all his best metaphors for his poetry -- his prose is richly textured with them. His imagery is concrete and physical in a way that makes it both startling and apt.

He is master of the swift summing-up, like his statement that “Yeats’s artistic imagination was often in a condition that can only be described as priapic”.

These prose pieces, like his poetry, show how firmly Heaney locates himself in Ireland’s history and in the physical landscape of his native Derry; but though he is local, he is in no way parochial.

Heaney’s sense of place recognises and connects him with other places. I hesitate to apply a ready-made slogan to the great man, but ‘act locally, think globally’ could have been coined for him.

When Heaney defends his native Ulster dialect it is not as heritage-in-aspic but as part of a defence of demotic speech generally -- as communicative language capable of touching chords in the reader.

He describes his boyhood sense of alienation from the literary language of the English canon; and it is touching to read that the future Nobel-prize-winning poet could once identify himself as a “pathetic scrambler on the edge of literacy”.

Seamus Deane, defining ecumenism as “an avoidance of the political” has said that if Heaney “were a less powerful writer”, he would be ecumenical. But it is clear that if Heaney is for conciliation, he is not for compromise -- conciliation needs to be preceded by the acknowledgement and redress of wrongs.

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