Poetry Seamus Heaney QEH, London

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The Independent Culture
I'm admiring the hairy interiors of the great whorls of his ears. The broad, bullish thrust of his shoulders straining against the seams of his jacket. And those hands too, deep-thrust into the trouser pockets, re-counting the loose change ...

And that was only Ted Hughes, who had preceeded me into Seamus Heaney's first London reading since the Swedish Academy kindly feather-bedded the Ulster poet's retirement years. Heaney has always been mindful of the need to keep a part of himself entirely separate from all those idolizing eyes. But on the evidence of Tuesday's reading, he may be in danger of losing that battle. Consider the first sighting of the man, for example; here he comes scrabbling/ scrambling his way up on to the stage as if a pistol has just gone off in his inner ear. It's almost the polar opposite of a triumphal entry.

And then, for the first 20 minutes or so of his hour-long reading, he seems distinctly uneasy. The famous eloquence is in short supply. He is fluffing the odd line. He is not even embracing the audience with a smile or two as he was so wont to do. Then, gradually, the whole body relaxes. And the voice too seems to open out - as does the character of the book which he is reading, The Spirit Level, his new collection.

The first real gesture of welcome to the audience comes at the beginning of a poem called "St Kevin and the Blackbird". In that poem the saint extends a palm of welcome to the bird, who squats on it, makes a nest there, raises a family. Heaney extends his own palm to us to show us how. Then comes the longest sequence of poems in the book, "Mycenae Lookout". Heaney contextualises the whole complicated story marvellously - of how Agamemnon, preparing to sail for Troy, had posted a lookout on the ramparts of his palace to keep watch for the beacon lights that would signal a Grecian victory. Heaney seems to be wrestling with his own words as he reads the sequence - almost as if they are a mighty opponent to be subdued. But he still finds the space - and, now, the ease within himself - to manage a joke about the use of that word "Lookout" in the poem's title. "You all know what a lookout is. But I also use the word in its Ulster sense: " 'What's the lookout?' Not so good."

Later on, Heaney takes a brief excursion away from the new book to read "Personal Helicon", the last poem in Death of a Naturalist, his first book, published in 1966. He raises his head, which looks a little wild and monkish tonight, and recites it from memory. How similar it is, in its tone and its preoccupations, to so many of the new poems.Seamus Heaney is not so much marching resolutely into the future as digging in ever deeper.

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