On this day in 1939 Seamus Heaney was born, eldest of nine children on a County Derry farm. His first collection of poems (Death of a Naturalist, 1966) earned four major awards and provoked Christopher Ricks to declare that those "who remain unstirred by Seamus Heaney's poems will simply be announcing that they are unable to give up the habit of disillusionment with recent poetry." There have been almost three dozen books since, and a long list of awards -- these include the 1995 Nobel -- for translation and criticism as well as poetry, but Heaney has maintained his reputation as an accessible poet, an approachable man, and an ambassador of literature.
The fame and the role seem to be kept in check by the roots. In The Redress of Poetry, a collection of lectures from his 1989-1994 tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Heaney prefaces his discussion of poetry "as a matter of angelic potential" with the recollection of the "warmth" with which his prestigious Oxford appointment had been greeted back home:
Perhaps the best example of the latter was a woman with a pram who was crossing the road at traffic lights in Omagh a couple of days after the result had been announced: she recognized me at the wheel of the car, gave me a quick, unsmiling nod, a very definite thumbs up, and then hurried smartly on about her business.
Heaney's interviews are full of an attractive self-deprecation and a healthy suspicion of writing, also well-rooted: "...there is indeed some part of me that is entirely unimpressed by the activity, that doesn't dislike it, but it's the generations, I suppose of rural ancestors -- not illiterate, but not literary." The other part of him realized that "literature was not a grand institution" but "a scruffy, fighting place," and that a poem could be "a mixture of the kitchen and the cosmos." So he keeps writing, and keeps arguing with the "rhubarbarians" who heckle that literature is done-for, more emperor's new clothes than "redress."
"Crediting Poetry," Heaney's Nobel Lecture, carries the argument back to when the kitchen really was the cosmos:
In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course -- rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house -- but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation.
Emerging from this come poems such as "A Sofa in the Forties" (The Spirit Level, 1996), and Heaney's best possible argument for poetry:
All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling
Behind each other, eldest down to youngest,
Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train
And between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door
Our speed and distance were inestimable,
First we shunted, then we whistled, then
Somebody collected the invisible
For tickets and very gravely punched it
As carriage after carriage under us
Moved faster, chooka-chook, the sofa legs
Went giddy and the unreachable ones
Far out on the kitchen floor began to wave....
With help from the radio, the nine kids left the three rooms for everywhere: "We entered history and ignorance / Under the wireless shelf. Yippee-I-ay, / Sang 'The Riders of the Range.' HERE IS THE NEWS, / Said the absolute speaker...." At the closing lines, the train is ever-arriving:
We occupied our seats with all our might,
Fit for the uncomfortableness.
Constancy was its own reward already.
Out in front, on the big upholstered arm,
Somebody craned to the side, driver or
Fireman, wiping his dry brow with the air
Of one who had run the gauntlet. We were
The last thing on his mind, it seemed; we sensed
A tunnel coming up where we'd pour through
Like unlit carriages through fields at night,
Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead,
And be transported and make engine noise.
Heaney remembers that the radio brought first news of places like Stockholm. He also remembers the Ballymurphy schoolmaster who said that getting to such places would take more than roots: "Work hard and when you leave school, don't end up measuring your spits on some street corner."