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Heaney, Seamus 1939–

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Heaney is an award-winning Northern Irish poet. Although most of his poetry is set in Northern Ireland, it is only recently that Heaney has considered its political turmoil in his writing. Many critics consider him the best poet now writing in Ireland. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Patricia Beer

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Geographically [Heaney's] landscape [in Wintering Out] is still the Irish countryside, past or present….

Sometimes the countryside is seen, dramatically, through the eyes of others, not very human others and one of them an outright mermaid, who returns to the sea wrapped in the smoke-reeks, straw-musts and films of mildew from the thatch of her lover's house…. As to metaphorical landscapes, there is little in this book, apart from the prefatory poem, which deals specifically with the present troubles, but of course 'specifically' is the operative word, and even if it were not, what Heaney chooses to tell us is his own business.

The tenacity with which Heaney, superficially the most urbane and least urban of modern poets, clings to his chosen rural setting is certainly not at this stage due to any limitation of actual experience. It comes perhaps from the spirit which makes compilers of anthologies for children still include such a vast majority of poems about the countryside…. The scenery of Wintering Out is predictable—misty and waterlogged and exhausting, with very black darkness—and its motifs are recognisable and recurrent: half-doors, cobblestones, swinging lanterns. It is an orderly realm of cause and effect. Desirably or undesirably, one thing leads to another…. There is none of the relief of surrealism, as when Ted Hughes's cat is found sitting outside the front door when his murderer gets back from the river.

Out of this sort of order come well-ordered poems, of the well-made kind which, significantly, the younger Irish poets have been giving us. Seamus Heaney's technique is as brilliant and idiosyncratic as ever. His poems do remind us of someone but it always turns out to be Seamus Heaney, except for such odd echoes as, for example, 'huge pleasures in the water', which necessarily recalls Dylan Thomas's 'huge weddings in the waves'. 'Smaller and clearer as the years go by'—Larkin's words about the young lady in the photograph album—could apply to Heaney's work. The poems in Wintering Out seem to be smaller in the best sense of the word: condensed even in their look on the page, concentrated, a long story made short. They are clear in every sense of the word: intelligible, confident, vivid. Every so often a metaphor starts showing off.

               The moon's host elevated
               in a monstrance of holly trees

would have pleased Polonius. But most are more subtly memorable:

                  A nimble snout of flood
                  licks over stepping stones
                  and goes uprooting.

Heaney is not only concerned with sound but obsessed with pronunciation: in poem after poem, vowels, consonants, the organs of speech themselves provide metaphor: in 'Toome', 'Broagh', 'Traditions', 'The Wool Trade', 'A New Song'. Like its two predecessors, Wintering Out is an impressive collection.

Patricia Beer, "Seamus Heaney's Third Book of Poems," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1972; reprinted by permission of Patricia Beer), Vol. 88, No. 2280, December 7, 1972, p. 795.

William H. Pritchard

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I've admired Seamus Heaney's work, but have preserved my distance from it: almost no human beings, but grainily humble perceptions in terse lines. There are some further capable poems in this mode in … [North ]; yet I confess to being more interested in the group of poems from the book's Part II. There, because...

(The entire section contains 4832 words.)

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