A Big Life

Michael Hofmann

  • New Selected Poems 1988-2013 by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 222 pp, £18.99, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 571 32171 1

Robert Lowell has a poem called ‘Picture in The Literary Life, a Scrapbook’ which begins:

A mag photo, I before I was I, or my books –
a listener … A cheekbone gumballs out my cheek;
too much live hair.

Not knowing the photo of Lowell, I go instead to the picture of Seamus Heaney on the front of the companion volume to this one, New Selected Poems 1966-87, painfully young, worried-looking, Noh-rice-flour-pale, against a dark brick wall. The riot of hair came later, in the 1970s, the period after the epochal move out of Belfast down to Glanmore in Wicklow, the Noddy Holder whiskers, the period of ‘Exposure’, of ‘long-haired and thoughtful’, of the ‘wood-kerne’ and the ‘inner émigré’. But the cheekbones are there. And a listener for sure. ‘You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note,’ he has the ghost of Joyce address him in the marvellous ‘Station Island’ sequence from 1984. Tweed jacket, early-model button-down shirt, knitted tie: he looks like a boy at a funeral, serious almost to the point of tears. ‘In the middle of a space that is separate and a little sorrowing’, as Heaney put it once, a line quoted back at him by Dennis O’Driscoll in the epic 2008 book of interviews called Stepping Stones that will stand as a partial monument to both men. If Heaney – who, it turns out, fished only about a dozen times in his life – ever did any ‘Casting and Gathering’, it wasn’t with Ted Hughes, to whom the poem thus entitled is dedicated, but here, in the play of question and answer with O’Driscoll, who died in 2012, predeceasing his great mentor.

‘I, or my books.’ For the duration of this brief, as it were twilit interval, Heaney is still both. It probably sounds foolish, but it is hard to think of a poet to whom being mattered so much, who worked so hard at it, or was so good at it. Even the poems increasingly came to be moments of being, or even spots of being, but there was an awful lot of Heaney outside the poems as well, which keeps the life in a book like Stepping Stones (if indeed there is another book like Stepping Stones), in myriad recordings and photographs, and in the recollections of the many people whose lives he crossed and graced, all over the world. It is still a case of ‘I, and my books’, to vary Lowell. The sound of the voice, the ready laugh, the putting-at-ease, the waggishness, but also the constant and quite unpriggish dignity and thoughtfulness. A big life, much of it lived in public, but never for a public or the public; rather, a great adventure: ‘Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived/In important places’ (‘The Ministry of Fear’). It is a sobering thing to read O’Driscoll’s ten-page chronology of Heaney’s life (up to 2008): the meetings with famous men, the travel, the lectures and prizes and distinctions, things that are off the map, or off the charts. (Friendship with the empress of Japan? To Delphi to attend the celebrations of the 2500th anniversary of the birth of Sophocles?)

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[*] Ian Hamilton reviewed The Haw Lantern in the LRB of 1 October 1987.