Field Work is Seamus Heaney’s fifth collection of verse. He published his first in 1966 and since then his output has been steady and discreet. Like his poetry: steady, discreet, reliable, and highly successful. He has won all the prizes and the reviews of his books have been so unanimous in their praise that now the question of his excellence is no longer discussed; the reviewers content themselves with explicating the subtleties of his textures or his references, as if he were some younger Eliot or Yeats.
It is all very peculiar, particularly in England where new voices have a notoriously hard time in being heard. Even more peculiar is the fact that recognition and success happened to Heaney instantaneously. The British jacket of his second book quotes five rave reviews of his first, three of them by university professors. This in itself would be extraordinary for any young poet anywhere. In England, where the divorce is absolute between the academies and what is called in the US “creative writing,” it was more or less unprecedented. Maybe Rupert Brooke did as well, but it didn’t happen to Ted Hughes at first, or even to Philip Larkin, however unassailable his status seems now; it still hasn’t happened in Britain to Sylvia Plath.
Why, then, was Heaney an exception? Perhaps it has something to do with his being an ‘Irishman. Since Congreve and Sterne there has always been at least one major Irish star on the British literary scene. Yeats and Joyce are long dead; Patrick Kavanagh outlived them but was too patchy and Dublin parochial; the gifted, underrated Thomas Kinsella departed for America, disappeared into the interior, and has scarcely been heard from since. The only obvious and natural contender is Beckett, but he has exiled himself to Paris, writes in French as much as English, and is experimental in a radical, forbidding way which many British academics, as well as the Great British Public, find hard to love. Heaney, if nothing else, is far less unsettling. Moreover, he comes from Northern Ireland and has written eloquently about that troubled and troublesome sore on the British conscience. But so, too, has Michael Longley, who comes from the same province and is also an excellent poet. Yet his books sell the usual derisory few hundred, while Heaney, like Larkin, numbers his admirers by the thousand. It would be good to believe that craft and restraint can still be so spectacularly rewarded, but I suspect, alas, that his popularity says less about these modest virtues than about contemporary English taste.
Heaney has in abundance a gift which the English distrust in one another but expect of the Irish: a fine way with the language. What in Brendan Behan, for instance, was a brilliant, boozy gift of the gab is transformed by Heaney into rich and sonorous rhetoric. He is a man besotted with words…
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