Nobel poet shaped by contradictions

Fintan O'Toole offers an eve-of-ceremony tribute to Seamus Heaney
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Meeting Bill Clinton in Dublin last week, and listening to the US President quote him in virtually every speech he gave, Seamus Heaney must have had mixed feelings. He himself has quoted with approval a message the American poet Robert Lowell sent to Lyndon Johnson, turning down a request to read at the White House: "every serious artist knows that he cannot enjoy public celebration without making subtle public commitments."

In an artistic life marked by an increasing volume of public celebration, culminating with his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature tomorrow, Seamus Heaney has also tried to avoid subtle political commitments.

He is not an unpolitical writer. On the contrary, when Heaney and others began to write poetry in Belfast in the early Sixties, it was a deeply political act. They believed, as Heaney later recalled, "that the tolerances and subtleties of their art were precisely what they had to set against the repetitive intolerance of public life."

His poetry is not a shunning of politics, but a corrective to it. By seeking out the subtlety that is always hidden in words, he has delivered a rebuke to the dangerous cliches of so much public language. One of the reasons he is so often quoted by politicians on big, symbolic occasions is that the generosity of his language supplies something that has been patently absent in most political speech.

It is easy, of course, for writers who don't really feel the tug of a commitment to their own tribe to steer clear of narrow political identifications. But in Heaney's case, everything about him is saturated in a visceral sense of belonging. His imagination is deeply territorial, utterly rooted in a sense of place. His work has returned again and again to his childhood in County Derry, a place, like all places in Northern Ireland, imbued with politics.

As a young Catholic, Seamus Heaney suffered the usual harassment from the exclusively Protestant special constabulary. Even though his family was not politicised, his "country of community", as he put it, "was also a place of division", wherein the very names of fields and townlands, some Scots, some Irish, gave the game away: "the lines of sectarian antagonism followed the boundaries of the land".

A poet in thrall to that landscape could have slipped easily and naturally into the role of cultural spokesman for an embattled tribe. The pressure to do just that weighs heavily on his work. The tension between the warm, rich lyric impulse of his gift and the dark, dangerous terrain over which it has often had to move is what has made his poetry so powerful.

His basic politics are not very different from those of most Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland. He famously objected to being included in the Penguin Book of British Verse, sending a poetic open letter to the editors:

My passport's green.

No glass of ours was ever raised

To toast the Queen.

But he writes, of course, in English. Almost as much as he is a poet of Irish experience, Heaney is a poet of English traditions, a successor to Milton, Wordsworth and Hopkins. And every time he writes, he acknowledges, in the very act, what he calls the "double reality" of Ireland and Britain.

That he has made something wonderful from this contradiction holds out the hope that living in a double reality, as Northern Ireland must learn to do, can be rich and rewarding instead of nightmarish and terrifying.

Some time ago, Heaney expressed the desire to "make things up more, to transform things more ... to change what's there. I would like to be able to put things through myself and make them different. I would like to be lighter. I would like to be freer." So, too, would the vast majority of Irish people, North and South. The job of politics is to get to a point where politicians don't have to rely on quotes from Seamus Heaney when they want to articulate that aspiration.

The writer is a columnist with the 'Irish Times'.