Poetic giant with his feet on the ground

It has been said that he is the only poet capable of writing a love poem comparing the beloved to a skunk; perhaps he is also the only one who could make the answer to the question “what’s your favourite colour?” interesting. That question was shouted from the audience last Sunday night when Heaney read from the latest selection of his work, Opened Ground, to a packed Piccadilly Theatre. There was a thoughtful pause as the question settled in, and then:

“Green,” he said, laughing himself, and making us laugh. For his inclusion in the 1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, he had rebuked its editors, Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison: “… be advised my passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised To toast the queen.” But his follow-up on Sunday had no political tint: “One favourite image of mine is the planet Earth seen from the astronaut’s perspective; that wavery ovum that is our Earth is very moving. I could make an ideological defence of green …” – and his voice trails off into laughter again.

There are some who hold this trailing off against him. Heaney is now nearly 60. For more than 30 years, since the publication of his first book, Death of A Naturalist, in 1966, he has risen from being a talented young poet, a Catholic Ulsterman and son of a Co Derry farmer to his present stature of poetic giant of his generation: he has been Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, and is now Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence at Harvard, a post held by Robert Frost and Robert Lowell before him. And then there is the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature.

His early rise, paralleling the growth of conflict in his native Northern Ireland, led many to expect him to take sides, to speak out: his reluctance to do so explicitly in his work has not met universal approval. When we meet, in the airy boardroom of his publishers, Faber & Faber, I ask if this is one of the difficulties of the lyric poet: balancing the beauty and pleasure of the work with the harshness of the subjects that come into the poet’s line of sight. “I don’t think the political presents itself to you as a writer as, in inverted commas, the political,” he says.

His voice is soft and deep, his eyes narrow behind his glasses. He speaks easily in the kind of coherent paragraphs that most writers would be happy to produce after several revisions. “The Robert Frost description of a poem, which I’ve quoted and quoted, seems to me to be simply true: a momentary stay against confusion. Maybe sometimes you will find a way of saying something that will keep the confusion momentarily at bay. It’s a bit like this.’ The same with The Northern Ireland question'” – he lowers his voice, mock-ponderous. “The way in is usually not a triumphal arch but a kind of mousehole, or by Ariadne’s thread: something reliable but very small.

“I think lyric poetry in the face of historic reality does depend on the utterly frail – but the utterly frail is often the most sensitive register. If you ponder the minuscule artistic evidence for the awful volume of reality represented by the First World War, it tells you that lyric poetry is a very strange and rare instrument and that you can’t expect a proportional yield between historical trauma and artistic yield.”

The truth is that Heaney’s poems deepen beyond politics or conflict. North, published in 1975, is laced with images of the “bog people”, those eerily preserved bodies found in peat bogs, victims of violent and mysterious deaths. They refract, rather than reflect, the conflict in Northern Ireland. Roy Foster, Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford and the biographer of Yeats, says that when he first read those poems he thought: “So it can be written about, and this is how you write about it. I felt that something had been liberated. He confronts the issue with propriety and dignity which is worthy of him. To be a heart-on-your sleeve poet on that issue is to trivialise both the issue and yourself.”

Poetry, not politics, is Heaney’s business. Opened Ground is a selection of his work from his beginnings to the present – his last grand selection was made nearly ten years ago. On its cover is a little image which he first spotted in Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches, a Hieronymus Bosch detail of a little naked child, who may be the infant Christ, with a spinning toy in his hand.

It’s clear that he loves the image, and the choice of it sheds an angled light on the way he now views his work: “The complete freedom of it attracted me, and the slightly scampish quality of baby Jesus in His pelt with what my mother would have called His little teapot! Perfectly poised, y’know? And there was something about the whirligig, the lightness of it, that goes with the account I had given of my own poetry that’s printed there (the Nobel lecture, Crediting Poetry). This guy’s about lightening up, in a way. And true to the idea that the child is the father of the man … it doesn’t have an immediate symbolic import. The thing is just itself, but if you pause with it, it can be read.”

The same is true of Heaney’s poetry, at its best: the thing is just itself, but if you pause with it, it can be read. It is this apparent expression of things and places as just themselves that is most remarkable about his work. “The best Heaney allows intelligence to remain within the organic forms he evokes, rather than stepping back,” says fellow poet Andrew Motion. Citing Keats, he says: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us.” Heaney is strongest when he resists the temptation to tell us, within a poem, what it means.

That scampish quality is in Heaney, too: in his refusal to take himself too seriously, his occasional terrible pun (of a love poem written for his wife Marie, called The Otter, he says: “It’s about the otter half’,” and grins apologetically), his willingness to embrace the youthful curiosity about the world that kept him with his ear close to the radio when he was growing up, the eldest of nine children, on his father’s farm. “The image I have now of my life is of ripples moving out, which encompass more the older you get and the further you go, both intellectually and physically – and that which is doing the encompassing is an extension of your first being.

“I like the sense that at the centre there’s still that child with the whirligig, running, but he knows more in one way. At a certain point you satisfy your curiosity about the world, you try to learn and then you realise that nobody can help. You’re left with yourself. This is the terrible thing, that you can then turn into yourself – that is the danger, when you become confident and a figure: that you turn the last ripple into a fortification.”

There seems little danger of that, despite his awareness that he is considered “a figure”, worrying that his work is overexamined: “I am grateful, but I must forget it,” he says. His work in The Spirit Level, his last volume of new poems published just after he won the prize he can hardly bring himself to name, is limber, sensuous, exact. Now he has nearly completed a translation of Beowulf – an exact translation, to be used as a parallel text by students: “None of your fancy stuff, none of your versions, none of your Christopher Logues,” he says ruefully, comparing the work to “breaking stones for pleasure”.

Once Beowulf is finished, he says: “I have a notion. Of something I’ll write. Lyric poetry is a matter of constant hope: but there have to be little projects, too, to keep yourself going.” He once said he was tempted to call a volume of poems Keeping Going: he may have held back from that, but we may all be glad that keeping going is just what he intends to do.

Opened Ground, published by Faber & Faber, priced Pounds 20 and Pounds 12.99 (paperback).