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This item is taken from PN Review 214, Volume 40 Number 2, November - December 2013.

In 1972 Seamus Heaney came to Oxford where I was just dropping out of an MPhil to develop the little publishing house I'd set up as an undergraduate. He had already published Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark. Wintering Out had recently appeared. The purpose of his visit, as of so many of the journeys he took, was a pietas: he wanted to find a publisher for a little volume of poems by the George Eliot and Wordsworth scholar W.J. Harvey, whom he had known in Belfast and who became Chair of English at Queen's. Harvey had attended Philip Hobsbaum's Belfast group (1962-66). 'At that time,' Heaney wrote in the preface to the 1973 pamphlet we produced, Descartes' Dream, printed by the legendary Derek Maggs of Mottingham, SE9, an accomplished, vocational and inexpensive letterpress printer and designer, -  'At that time there was much poetry beginning to get written in Northern Ireland and John Harvey was typically alert and responsive to the creative action.' Harvey had published before, but these were the Belfast poems, eleven of them, in which the critic, teacher and administrator was rediscovering his poetic feet. Harvey died before the end of Heaney's first year at the University.

From Harvey's last, long poem, the title poem of the pamphlet, Heaney quotes the lines, 'This landscape calls me home, bleak littoral, / Where spike grass yields to kelp.' He comments, 'Its seriousness calls out frankly in the last lines and I am grateful that this collection will now give us the chance to fulfil its imperative: "For consolation when you wake / Keep fast this image in your mind / And sleep upon these cadences."' On 30 August 2013 Heaney died. Within days PN Review had received more than twenty elegies from poets who loved him and his work. 'A great writer within any culture changes everything. Because the thing is different afterwards and people comprehend themselves differently. If you take Ireland before James Joyce and Ireland fifty years afterwards, the reality of being part of the collective life is enhanced and changed,' he said in 1968. Time will tell how great a writer he is. But his pietas evoked an ancient respect and affection in others. Kelsey Thornton sent me a sketch of Heaney on a title page, made during a reading in Dublin. Here is an abiding presence.

It was Heaney's sense of pietas that led to his PN Review 72 essay on Padraic Fallon's poetry, subsequently the introduction to Fallon's Collected Poems, and to his long PN Review 88 poem 'The Flight Path' dedicated to Donald Davie (1992, collected in The Spirit Level in 1996), marked by an unprecedented candour about political matters. With Heaney pietas is always dialogue: he carries Anchises on his shoulders but he talks to him as they move through the flames. Thus, to Davie he says parodically (and Davie took his meaning):

Your 'Ireland of the Bombers'. Your yes and no
And praises and dispraises and poems to me.
Your Royal Navy days. Your TCD.
England your England. Low Church. High ground.
We're in holding pattern; a near miss over Heathrow.

The round-table discussion with Heaney, Derek Walcott, Josef Brodsky and Les Murray held in Dun Laoghaire in 1988, transcribed by the BBC producer Julian May and printed in PN Review 66, was that kind of deeply engaged dialogue. Describing his experience of Walcott's poems, he said, 'in the early 1970s I was in the United States and at that time the tensions between being glamorously ethnic and being culturally -  I hate the word pluralist, that's not what I mean -  universally alert to other realities, that was a kind of tension. And it was a tension that was in Irish writing where you could produce a native product that erected cultural barriers against the world and in a slightly triumphalist way affirmed itself, or whether you would try to open yourself -  keep faithful -  and open yourself. Derek seemed to be in the keep faithful and open yourself school of writing, and that delighted me very much.' In speech as in his prose the syntax holds through its qualifications, its layering of argument, its triumphant untriumphalism. He speaks of the 'disobedient energy' of Auden's and Les Murray's poems, of their 'democratic stamina'. And he says, 'There is an audience for poetry which is small -  maybe hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand -  but there's a public for poetry which is a bit larger, and then outside the audience and the public there's the crowd listening, or picking something up, and I think something like that happened with Auden, something like that I suspect is happening in Australia with Les Murray.'

Cover Selected Poems 1965-1975 Seamus Heaney

What I remember most joyfully from the Dun Laoghaire table ronde is what Heaney said regarding the failures of New Formalism, concluding: 'I would make a distinction between form which is an act of living principle, and shape which is discernible on the page, but inaudible, and kinetically, muscularly unavailable. Poetry is a muscular response also, I feel. If you read a Shakespeare sonnet, a beloved Shakespeare sonnet, it's a dance within yourself.'

In Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971- 2001 one gets the measure of the man, civil, miscellaneous. Taking a leaf out of Robert Lowell's book, Heaney warns us that he has thoroughly revised, abridged and culled his earlier work. In the remix, what gets pared away can be the rich mulch of contingencies that gave the poet his occasions and creative confusions. His prose is sometimes sentimentalised by 'the poet's good feeling about his art' or nostalgia for vanished certainties of place and voice. 'Beware of "literary emotion"', he warns, then disregards the warning. The art of poetry need not be -  cannot be -  quite so 'redressing' as Heaney suggests and still remain an instrument of exploration and truth; it is not a poultice, it can inflict a wound. His own best poems explore darker territory. 

This item is taken from PN Review 214, Volume 40 Number 2, November - December 2013.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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