Heaney was simultaneously the most local and most international of poets.
Seamus Heaney’s wish to be buried in Bellaghy, the small village close to his childhood home, in a grave beside his younger brother, is testament to the Nobel-prize winning poet’s extraordinary sense of rootedness. He had become perhaps the best-known contemporary poet in the English language, and was honoured with awards and titles around the world, but to read his poetry is to become familiar with small, knowable communities, albeit on the cusp of change.
The tension is there in the first poem of his first collection, “Digging”, still his most famous poem, in which the poet sits with pen in hand, writing, while his father can be heard outside digging with a spade. “By God, the old man could handle a spade”, writes Heaney, “Just like his old man… But I’ve no spade to follow men like them”. Instead, with the pen resting in his hand, he resolves to “dig with it”. In that manifesto poem, Heaney signals one of his most enduring preoccupations, the ambivalence of the modern break from age-old tradition.
Heaney was alive to the sounds of the new. He recalled in his Nobel acceptance speech his childhood delight in listening to the many languages and voices of the radio. The “newness” which he was compelled to describe, however, as his work came to maturity in the 1970s, was the collapse of civil society in his native Northern Ireland into terror and war. In the collection, North (1975), he sought out the images and metaphors from nature and history that might make sense of, or provide some analogy for, the sudden eruption of sectarian violence around him. The demands upon him, and his insistently creative response, are reflected in the poem, “Whatever You Say Say Nothing”, in which the obsession with “long-standing hate” leads the poet to protest that “I live here, I live here too, I sing”.