Essay: Seamus Heaney, An Appreciation

WHEN HE READ as part of the 2006 Dublin Writers Festival, Seamus Heaney shared the bill with the relatively unknown (to Irish readers, at least) Dutch poet Rutger Kopland, who passed away last year.

At the time I was Programme Director of the DWF and pleased to have secured the participation of a poet I had long admired and wanted Irish audiences to meet. The endorsement of our Nobel Laureate would no doubt guarantee a capacity audience at the event.

As so often in such matters, Heaney’s generosity on the night went even further when he insisted on playing second fiddle and promoting the visiting poet to headline act.

This kind of generosity many of us in the literary world have come to take almost for granted with Seamus Heaney (though it appears to have been more the exception than the rule in the world of Irish writing before his rise to prominence). At every level, it would seem, Heaney has been an inspiration and exemplar. His death now at the relatively young age of 74 is the loss of both a great writer and of a huge and benevolent force for poetry in an increasingly text-noisy world.

When Heaney, in that early, long-since famous poem ‘Digging’, choses the pen rather than the spade of his ancestors (or indeed the gun of some of his fellow countrymen), he does so not to avoid a challenge but to face that challenge head-on. His life thereafter exemplified the notion of poetry as both craft and vocation, as a way of life that, far from setting the poet apart from his fellow citizens, instead binds him ever closer to them, giving him a chance to share with them what he has called “the learned pleasure” of poetry, just as they in turn share with him the fruits of their own labours.

It is that sense of poetry being part of the world of craft, exchange and communication that appears to have saved Heaney from the torment and self-doubt that plagues so many great poets. Combined with that sense of craft is a conviction of the importance of actual experience, and of the language that goes hand-in-hand with it.

When politicians seek to bamboozle an audience they invariably reach for a largely Latinate or Greek-derived ‘philosophical’ vocabulary; when their hearts are broken, however, or their patience snaps, instinctively they resort to single-syllable words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Heaney, perhaps better than anyone in English-language poetry, had an unfailing sense of the power those relatively simple words can do when handled with care. The point, after all, is not to explain or ornament the world but to re-imagine it and to make that re-imagining accessible.

Sometimes, however, as in any relationship, even a relatively plain-spoken poem will require effort and patience, both on the part of the poet and of the reader. As the poet himself put it, unapologetically: “It is no denigration of a poem to say that it resists its audience for a time.”

This is a far cry from the accusation, leveled against him at the height of The Troubles, that ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ (to use the title of one of his own poems). Horrified by the murder of his own cousin (“with blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes”) and the escalating tribalism and barbarism of the time, in the late 1970s Heaney clearly struggled to understand his role as poet in a time of conflict. His now much celebrated poems on the Danish bog bodies gave him if not distance then a kind of perspective and were a significant step in his maturation as a major poet, not just on an Irish but on the world stage. In a sense, this outward look was continued in his many translations and versions over the following four decades, from Virgil’s Latin, Sophocles’ Greek and the Old English of Beowulf among other texts.

Good poems engage their audience. For the master poet, there is no need to explain, only to describe and trust. In the early poem, ‘Follower’, for instance, in which the poet’s father (as generations before him had done) follows the horse-plough down the field, Heaney writes, "He would set the wing / And fit the bright steel-pointed sock." Those of us who know a little about ploughing can see immediately the ancient technology in all its worn glory; those who don’t must be drawn in by the apparently simple rhythm of the phrasing, and afterwards held by that wonderful cadence of vowels, so pleasurable to speak aloud that one can only imagine Heaney voicing them over and over to himself before deciding he had them in the right order, like the perfect sequence of stones in a dry-stone wall.

A near perfect collection of lyrics, Heaney’s 1991
Seeing Things is a book whose title suggests both the importance of descriptive powers for a poet and the visionary nature of poetry itself. Among a number of masterpieces, the book includes the poem ‘Markings’ which describes a group of youngsters playing football in fading light, the ball now coming to them “like a dream heaviness”, “their own hard breathing” sounding “like effort in another world”.

The longevity of the poems seems assured: future generations will surely find themselves reflected there as today we find ourselves. Now it is time to acknowledge too the greatness of the man. For long after he might have been expected to slow down (the Nobel and a dozen other major awards behind him, his stroke of 2006 enough to give any public figure pause for thought), Heaney continued to devote himself selflessly to poetry – to encourage and praise, to enable and champion and bless – even when the effort must have been so much more difficult, even after the light began to fade.

(First published in
The Sunday Business Post, 01 Sept 2013)


Essay: As innocently as he had seen it first, an appreciation of Dennis O'Driscoll

AT THE HEART of the late Dennis O'Driscoll's poetry is a quiet astonishment at the way we manage to live our lives, despite knowing what lies in store for us at the end, whether that end will come as a bang or as a whimper. From his debut collection of poems, Kist (a typical O'Driscoll pun, this time connecting the burial place and the symbolic act of love and affection), O'Driscoll was in the realm of death and shadows. One of his best known, his trademark poems, Someone, appears in that volume, and draws up, with a kind of brutal honesty, a list of all the things that the subject of the poem is unaware of as he goes about his daily routine, oblivious to the fate that is in store for him. 

Someone is dressing up for death today,
a change of shirt or tie,
eating a final feast of buttered sliced pan …

His second collection, Hidden Extras (1987), has a companion poem (companion in every sense), What She Does Not Know Is, in which the same ignorance or blindness to fate is present, but the person on whom death's shadow has fallen is not herself (the subject on this occasion is female) but her loved one out in the world. 

What She Does Not Know Is

That she is a widow.
That these are the last untinged memories of her life …

It is interesting to note that the first adjective to appear in each poem has to do with finality (a 'final' feast, the 'last' untinged memories), as if endings were already the material out of which O'Driscoll would make his poetic life.

This awareness of endings then, paradoxically, was O'Driscoll's departure point, the place from which he set out into the bleak fact-space of so many of his poems, armed only with a great kindness and gentleness, an almost childlike but detached (yet never ‘Martian’) wonder at the behaviour and resilience of all of us humans in the face of the undeniable and inescapable.

The early poem Office Photograph, casting its eye back on what is seen as another former life, begins 'There will be no reunion for this class of people'. But somehow O'Driscoll manages to be more than just the doom-speaking party pooper, the Gothic presence unable to connect with others or to appreciate the wonders of the here and now. It is remarkable, though, that when he writes poems which turn their gaze directly at the natural world (his being, in the main, a poetry of people and peopled places) he does so by moving from the natural towards the man-made, rather than, as most metaphor would seem to work, from the man-made back towards the natural.

The poem 'Air Time' opens:

Vapour trails:
worm casts left
by burrowing planes.

The image is right, and visual, and arresting. But the double- if not triple-take of the image suggests that even a simple, haiku-like vision will not allow O'Driscoll entirely to escape his preoccupations with death and burial (vapour, trails, worm, casts, left, burrowing… almost every other word in those three lines suggests either the act of vanishing or of interment).

By times, indeed, O'Driscoll personified death, or Death, as we should probably say, giving his work a distinctly allegorical feel, and casting the poet himself, with his fetish for death's heads (the cover of Hidden Extras is a visual pun on his own name, Dry Skull) in the role of medievalist scribe, ever drawn to the memento mori on his writing desk. The poem 'Home Affairs' begins, 'Death is moving into newly constructed suburbs, / through semi-detached houses, ugly identical twins.' Here it is only the fact that its placement in the line means 'Death' in any case takes a capital letter; otherwise how could we to miss the stark personification, the arrival of the grim reaper.

Dennis O'Driscoll had great admiration, and indeed affection, for his fellow Munster poet, Michael Hartnett (and, despite the many things that separate them, there was a great deal of civility, care and diffidence about each man's dealings with the world). Hartnett's translation of Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, the 17th century Irish language poet, contains the haunting lines, 'Death's the theme of all my writing / Till I am stretched in clay beside him', and this awareness was certainly shared by the two poets. As he further experimented with how to approach his given, or chosen, subject, O'Driscoll revised this image, or variations on it, explicitly, never just playing for effect but always instead searching for the standalone, almost concrete image that he so admired in the work of others.

In Quality Time (1997) he writes

Death, once brushed against,
does not seem in the least
like a stubbly ghost with scythe
reaping dry grass in the graveyard
but shows up as a brash executive
cutting recklessly across your lane,
lights making eye-contact with yours …

O'Driscoll's ability to see the unseen, the unspeakable even, moving around among us could perhaps as easily have turned him into a fiction writer, for there is something about those poems in which he describes the duties and routines of daily living that have a 'seen' as much as an 'experienced' feel about them. The long poem, The Bottom Line, set in the world of offices and meetings, schedules and appointments, suspicions and masks, is evidently based on his own experiences in such a world, but the character at the heart of the poem is clearly a construction, an amalgam of the opinions of self and others, the latter sometimes easily spotted for their diametric opposition to the poet's own, such as this pronouncement on the workplace interior: 'Our boardroom's abstract art infuriates me: / dashed-off blobs and squiggles. Trash.' That the poem is collected in O'Driscoll's 'New and Selected Poems', whose cover image by Albert Irvin (also chosen for the poet's website) might well be described as 'blobs and squiggles' by even a sympathetic art critic, suggests that O'Driscoll wasn't giving up with a fight. 

O'Driscoll's hero (one of many) Miroslav Holub was once described by Al Alvarez as "one of the sanest voices of our time". One might say of O'Driscoll that he was one of the most sober – sober not in the dull sense, but in the sense of always being in control of his faculties, always connected, in tune, always weighing the quality of what was before him against the terrible weightlessness of what he carried within.

It is not the job of one's friends to engage in amateur psychoanalysis, or to speculate on what might have been had the events of life presented themselves differently: we are all, clearly, the result of our experiences, shaped by the world we think — for a time at least — we shape. But Dennis O'Driscoll's poetry is the result of such a sequence of experiences and perception, of early loss, early vision of loss, early understanding of loss, of a drive to make something out of loss rather than to hold it off at arm's length, that it seems to have a driving message about it, a significance, a coherence. There's little ecstasy or transformation or metaphysical transportation in his poetry (O’Driscoll offers little by way of consolation) and it is hard to think of him as a Darwinian, in the sense at least that the poems don't hold out much hope for change or improvement or evolution from one generation to the next. If anything, they remind us of how little actually changes or improves. They are witty, playful, light-footed but seldom happy. They know too much; they are about living with that knowledge,

For a poet so attuned to loss and death, so drawn to it for subject matter, so aware of the way its presence in our lives is the only true subject matter, O'Driscoll's last book, Dear Life, concludes a poetic journey in a way that so many last books fail to find the courage to do. If his early work looked at death from the outside (the loss of loved ones, neighbours, colleagues) it is clear that, by now, the poet is very much considering his own mortality, his own immanent departure. Here the 'we' and the 'us' of the poems very much feels like a body of people with the poet himself in the front line. He makes tough pronouncements ('God is dead to the world. / but he still keeps up / appearances' –– 'Fabrications'); he looks unflinchingly at illness and ageing ("time stiffening its arthritic resolve / as we cling to dwindling existences / by walking frames" –– 'Dear Life'); and in a typical O'Driscoll telegraphese, he reduces our best efforts to a kind of surreal, almost risible refusal to concede ("Time only for the executive summary, / The Dummies' Guide, / The Podcast highlights").

And yet there is an acknowledgement of beauty, however fleeting, however powerless it is against what must come. The title of the penultimate poem 'Admissions' contains perhaps one of O'Driscoll's most effective puns, suggesting both entry into the healthcare system and, crucially, a recognition of something previously unacknowledged. Driven through the uncomprehending, ever preoccupied world, the voice of the poem (and how else to read it but as his own) is nevertheless, somehow, distracted, seduced, even comforted.

That you fell for the world's seductive looks
that evening in the psychedelic dusk
is not to be denied; how some confidence –
insider information you had withheld until then –
was let slip:
and he saw that it was good.


I first met Dennis (I have struggled up to now to write of him from a distance) back about the time the poet Gerald Dawe launched The New Younger Irish Poets anthology in the Douglas Hyde Gallery in TCD. It was 1991 and my own first collection, The Unwound Clock, had come out just the previous year. Perhaps its ambiguous title had appealed to Dennis, in his poems at least another clock-watcher. There was also the fact that, as Dennis pointed out from the start, we had midlands childhoods in common, a shared sense of being landlubbers in an island world. (I had written a poem called Homecoming in which, ironically, a truck-driver sings Michael Row the Boat Ashore as he drives through the midlands, and Dennis's poem 'Brothers at Sea' begins, 'We inlanders don't have a sea leg / to stand on when we laze along the prom, / unable to establish much rapport / with the hazy waves…') When I had a change of heart and learned to swim at the age of 39, Dennis seemed almost as astonished as I was myself.

In Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams (2001), Dennis's first volume of essays from The Gallery Press (shortly to be followed by a second), he includes a small autobiographical piece, Circling the Square: A Thurles Prospect, that I always felt could be the basis for a larger work. It is full of warmth and detail and a kind of gentle heart-soreness that makes it such a convincing portrait of a place and time. But Dennis had other targets in his sights: mountains of new poetry from all over the world to read and digest and review; his mammoth biography-by-interview of Seamus Heaney; and of course the continuation of his own considerable (in every sense) poetic output.

Unfailingly, and mostly when we were talking on the phone about who might be good to have on the bill of the Dublin Writers Festival which I was then programming, Dennis would ask about my own work, reminding me that, whatever else I did for others, it was necessary to make time for my own poems. At the time I understood this to be a hint that the neglect of one's own work can only result in a less than generous attitude to that of others, but that says more about my reluctance to champion my own poems than it does about Dennis's ongoing encouragement. For instance, when I was approached by the UK publisher Salt about the prospect of a New and Selected Poems in 2004, upon discussing this with Dennis I was amazed that he almost immediately offered to contribute an Introduction, something he seldom did (for fear of starting an avalanche of requests, no doubt), though few were better qualified or more encouraging of the poets around them. In that Introduction, it is interesting now to see how much emphasis Dennis puts on the subject of home and homeplace, significant ingredients in my work, certainly (I've also written a book-length memoir about my home town of Portlaoise) but tellingly (and despite his admiration for my 'science' poems) the aspect Dennis was most drawn to and often referred to in conversation.

In his voluminous gatherings of quotations for Poetry Ireland Review, afterwards collected in two separate volumes, by Poetry Ireland and later by Bloodaxe Books, one finds an astonishing range of responses to the subject of poetry, drawn from an astonishing range of publications (only Dennis seemed to keep an eye on everything from Esquire to the Financial Times to The Northside People). Here it is as if Dennis is reminding us, and himself, just how large and varied is the world of poetry, though most of us write it, or read it, on our own, in a place where certainty and power are, at best, replaced by guesswork and luck. One such quote that seems to say something significant as I write is from the Austrian writer Karl Kraus. 'A poem is good until one knows who wrote it.' Dennis's work, in so many ways, was an argument against that easy, reactionary impulse most of us have been guilty of at one time or another, a tendency to withdraw from he world, to blame the world, to dismiss the world for not being different or better or more favourably disposed towards our genius. Dennis knew all about poets, could talk for hours without notes on almost anyone, on any movement, and yet in the end it was the poems he read, the poems he was drawn to, sometimes despite those who had written them.

In that sense he had earned the right to be hard on even his favourite poets, as he was on the Polish Wislawa Symborskza when I first mentioned her to him ("… not all good … she can be very uneven …” or words to that effect, and then on into specific details), or was in print on Tomas Transtromer, the Swedish Nobel Laureate whose works often explores the realms of sleep and dream, and often with great beauty. "The frontier at which calmness of tone edges into inertness of style is one at which his readers are likely to join the author involuntarily at one of his near-sleep experiences," Dennis writes in Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams, separating, yet again, the poems from the poet, and attempting, as ever, by his honesty, to be fair to both in the process.

Dennis is greatly missed, the man and the poet, the critic and the correspondent. The poems cited above, and others, are already classics. The depth and range of his reading, his passion, enthusiasm and advocacy for poetry are unmatched in contemporary criticism in the English language. His forthcoming second volume of prose (due from the Gallery Press, Sept. 2013) will be doubly precious to his many readers and friends, not as some memento mori but as proof of the ability of a fine mind and fine words to find a new life of their own.