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That Seamus should also be a great critic should surprise no one.He thought deeply about poetry, putting incredible pressure as a reader on the language before him – a pressure not unlike what he lavished on his own poems. I remember a visit from him in 1980, when he had burst on to the American scene as a kind of representative poet, taking a chair at Harvard.
I rhyme To see myself, to set the darkness echoing. His poetry was a divine echo chamber, a place where he listened and watched, gathering what Frost called the “sound of sense” in a discrete and physical manner, amplifying his own voice by rhymes, working on countless linguistic and symbolic levels. I watched with fascination as Seamus dug into the Irish soil, as a poet, finding in the bog a perfect simulacrum of his own art.
“Bogland” is one of the finest of these, a poem about the endless layers of Irish history gathered in a bog, in a poem, in the word itself – almost any word, which is a palimpsest, a story of erasures that underlie the current writing.
We had a long walk in New Hampshire, and he worried aloud about being on what he called “the conveyor belt” of readings and appearances.
He wondered if this would detract from his writing.
The news from last Friday that Seamus Heaney had died brought him warmly to mind.
He was the central poet of the post-war era, and a friend of more than 40 years.Only recently, he came to stay with me at my Vermont farmhouse.What struck me on that occasion was his particular focus on poetry.He quickened our sense of daily life, putting the work of digging peat or making horseshoes at the centre of his poetry.His skills were remarkable; he had access to the original springs of the language, drew from its deepest roots.I couldn’t answer his question at the time, but in retrospect I could.It doesn’t seem to have damaged the work: he continually added to the storehouse, writing incisive, memorable poems in his later years, including those in his astringent final volume, Human Chain, which contains poems equal to anything he’d written before.Their ways and means with language fuelled and propelled him into his own work, which involved a rich conversation with his favourite poets: Wordsworth, Frost and Hopkins, Donne and Herbert. He also loved Dante and the Beowulf poet (his translations of their poetry remain peerless – though I wish he’d done a whole Inferno).The range of his poetic affections is evident in all his writing.Seamus had mastered and made his own the traditional cadences and forms: blank verse, the sonnet, the rhyming quatrain.I don’t think any poet in living memory had so revitalised traditional forms.