Seamus Heaney’s status as an important English-language poet is validated in OPENED GROUND: POEMS, 1966-1996 which demonstrates his Irish work as well as his interests in form and translation. As his 1995 Nobel Prize speech indicates, he has seen his task to function as witness (rather than activist) to Ireland both as a scene of violent political upheaval and as a rich seedbed for poetry. This collection begins with earthy poems of rural Ireland, rooted in Heaney’s youth in the rural North. It includes the poems from NORTH (1975) which note the violence staining Ireland’s political life (frequently using metaphors drawn from Europe’s bloody past).
The collection also contains a rich variety of Heaney’s translations from Dante as well as from medieval Irish (in selections from SWEENEY ASTRAY, 1983) and forms including several sonnet sequences, such as “Clearances “ (dedicated to the memory of his mother), and the box-like form of “Squarings.” Throughout, Heaney’s diction is a compound of blunt Anglo-Saxon and Irish words in place names and dialect. The effect is sometimes a countryman’s view— unsentimental but admiring—of nature, sometimes a harsh picture of violence (as in the murder victim in “Station Island”), but always it creates a sense of life that grows from the poet’s respect for naming the world he describes.
In Heaney’s Nobel speech, “Crediting Poetry,” he chronicles his growth as a poet in the context of other poets (with special attention to the other Irish Nobel winner, William Butler Yeats) , notes Ireland’s history of sectarian violence and its growing hopes for peace, and defines the poet’s task as witness to the public events of his time.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCV, October 15, 1998, p. 388.
The Economist. CCCXLVIII, September 12, 1998, p. S14.
The Guardian. September 19, 1998, p. SAT9.
New Statesman. CXXVII, September 18, 1998, p. 54.
The New York Times. November 24, 1998, p. E11.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, November 2, 1998, p. 74.
The Spectator. CCLXXXI, September 5, 1998, p. 36.
The Times Educational Supplement. September 11, 1998, p. B11.