3 April 2014
Seamus Heaney (b. 1939, d. 2013) was a poet, playwright, translator and lecturer, and the recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was the author of over 20 volumes of poetry and criticism, and edited several widely used anthologies. Anthony Hurford reflects on the poets second collection Door into the Dark, which evokes the poets early rural life in Northern Ireland
When I first started Door into the Dark I thought maybe Heaney had been deliberately trying to break the spell of Death of a Naturalist. I didn’t know what to make of the first two poems. I struggled to keep up, took some time to tune in, but have now learnt what those poems are about – Mossbawn (the farm on which Heaney lived during his early childhood), and about closeness to a horse and a stable.
Door into the Dark bursts with wonderful, living, poems, but maybe lacks the coherence of Death of a Naturalist with its themes of lessons learned, of growing up, of becoming, of reaching out. Death of a Naturalist was Heaney’s first collection, and he himself recognised that this second collection was less ‘transformative’ than the first, according to Stepping Stones: interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll. I found this book well before I had read Heaney’s poetry, but leafing through it, it seemed so interesting a book, such an esteemed poet talking of poetry.
I'm reading it alongside his poems now. The first two chapters discuss Heaney’s childhood, especially Mossbawn and his journey into poetry, with other chapters loosely focussed around the collections. I'm finding it wonderful. The interviews give a picture of Heaney’s development as a poet and his links to his contemporaries.
I suppose the interviews make me more realistic of Heaney as a poet and as a person. He comes across as humane and modest; grounded, yet able to fly in his understanding and expression. I found the chapter on Door into the Dark tremendous, full of gems. Heaney describes his encounter with self-consciousness having published a book and his seeking for self-forgetfulness in his poems; fascinating to me as a developing writer.
I'd meant to read Heaney better for some time, when during a holiday a summer rainstorm led me to a bookshop’s shelter. Here, I came across Heaney’s book of Oxford lectures The Redress of Poetry, which on page-flipping seemed so juicy I couldn’t resist. His respect for Philip Larkin and his argument that maybe W.B. Yeats expressed something beyond, chimed. At first I thought I’d read more of this book as I know the poets in it better, but I find it accessible even when I know the poets less. Also, I can come back to it when I know them better.
On completing Door into the Dark, and with this other reading, I was flying, enthused to read poets of the world as well as Heaney. No more Heaney-envy, but a wish to feel my own experience, my own doors into the dark, and to write.