Critics place Heaney in the Northern School, a loose affiliation of Irish poets who grew up during The Troubles, a period of conflict between various nationalist and unionist forces in Ireland beginning in the late 1960’s. This group saw their country torn by political and religious strife for nearly three decades, and their poetry offers a varied response to the events of the times, acts of destructive and deadly violence. Among the writers associated with this group, including Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, Heaney offers the most intimate response. Many of Heaney’s poems focus on history, politics, and personal identity; in particular, he examines the individual self both avoiding and embracing broader cultural concerns. For Heaney, the cultural and the personal are separate but bound aspects of a single identity, an idea reminiscent of English poet John Keats’s theory of inseparable, but irreconcilable, opposites. Frequently, memory functions in Heaney’s poetry as the linking element between self, history, and culture.
Much of Heaney’s poetry is written from the first-person perspective and the poet directs his attention to events in his own life and immediate environs. “Digging,” the first poem in his first volume, metaphorically connects his father and grandfather’s labors breaking turf to the pen that Heaney hoists. “I’ll dig with it,” he notes in the final line of the poem, and does, into the landscape of his elders and back through the ages. Heaney avoids solipsism by allowing his poetic lens to travel in reverse to encounter generations of family members and centuries of ancestors. “The Tollund Man,” featured in Wintering Out, explores the past through preserved corpses exhumed from the bogs. These remains of sacrificial victims become, in Heaney’s verse, a metaphor for sectarian violence in present-day Ireland. Heaney links the two directly in “Punishment,” published in North, a poem that contrasts sanctions against adulterous women in prehistoric times with reprisals against Irish women who consorted with British soldiers. The first were drowned, the latter tarred and feathered. Heaney questions whether his own position as detached poet, one who records events but does not participate in them, might not be a kind of complicity.
Heaney’s poetic form varies from free verse to sonnets to terza rima; that he has mastered so many forms is a testament to his diversity and skill as a poet. However, what grounds his poetry is not a particular form but his ability to link Ireland’s past and present through connected themes. Primary among these themes is Heaney’s ongoing exploration of the role of the poet in contemporary society. For Heaney, the poet speaks not as a national troubadour, mouthpiece, or social conscience, but from the perspective of an observer, one who relays his own life and experiences as they touch upon and are touched by the experiences of others.
First published: 1984
Type of work: Poetry
A collection of imagistic poems that are confessional in nature.
Part 1 of this three-part collection contains poems that recount personal events and objects from Heaney’s life. In one entry, the poet and his sons fly a kite that becomes emblematic of both the resiliency and the fragility of the human spirit. In another, the fabric of a bathrobe removed from its wearer by her lover is likened to the cloth of religious vestments, simultaneously elevating human sexuality to the level of the divine and returning the spiritual realm to the bodily. These slice-of-life poems capture individual images, snapshots of particular scenes and moments in the poet’s life. Collectively viewed as an album, they reinforce what it means to be human.
The title of this collection derives from the middle section, “Station Island.” This twelve-part sequence focuses on...
(The entire section contains 1784 words.)
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- Critical Essays
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