09/03/2013 04:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Seamus Heaney, Experimental Poet

In an overwhelmingly conceptual era, in which nearly all the arts are dominated by precious young geniuses showing off their technical virtuosity and theoretical sophistication, Seamus Heaney was a great experimental old master, concerned with the aesthetic qualities and the truth of his art. His greatness did not burst forth fully formed in his earliest work, but grew over time as his art evolved into maturity and wisdom. In a series of interviews with Dennis O'Driscoll, late in his life, Heaney expressed his philosophy of poetry in discussing his own work and that of his predecessors and peers.


Portrait of Seamus Heaney, by Tai-Shan Schierenberg (2004). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Heaney did not admire verbal pyrotechnics, but wanted to make poetry from language that he heard spoken around him:

Other poets broach the dictionary hoard, and get great energy and exhibition from doing so, but for me the point about dialect or hearth language is its complete propriety to the speaker and his or her voice and place. What justifies it and gives it original juice and joy is intimacy and inevitability. I've always confined myself to words I myself could have heard spoken, words I'd be able to use with familiarity in certain companies.

He did not believe poems could be deliberately planned or engineered. They began by chance: "The accident factor, the surprise factor, the oops factor is important." The poem then had to be discovered in the process of working:

The experiment of poetry, as far as I am concerned, happens when the poem carries you beyond where you could have reasonably expected to go. The image I have is from the old cartoons: Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse coming hell for leather to the edge of a cliff, skidding to a stop but unable to halt, and shooting over the edge. A good poem is the same, it goes that bit further and leaves you walking on air.

Making art was not like making cookies:

"Form is not like a pastry cutter - the dough has to move and discover its own shape." The subject of a poem was not merely an excuse for a technical exercise, for poems had to be about something: "I can't conceive of a poetry that hasn't a subject to deal with."

At a time when it was fashionable to dismiss Robert Frost as an old-fashioned writer of poems for schoolchildren, Heaney was unapologetic in his praise for Frost's art:

I felt at home in the world of his poetry - the New England farm world, the people, the idiom that was used. I now realize that Frost is a highly literary poet but he allows the world as it is to have its say...I liked his sense of "this-worldness," the subject matter, the dead-on and head-on-ness...I came to appreciate more and more the sophistication of his art, what he made of what he was given...[T]here's a seriousness, an inner core of high, hard intelligence, in Frost.


Robert Frost (1951). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Much in the way that Heaney admired Frost for his experimental qualities, his favorite modern painter was another great experimental old master, Cézanne:

Sitting there sur le motif, his grumpy contrary old back turned on us as he faces the lumpy countervailing mountain...What I love is the doggedness, the courage to face the job, the generation of what Hopkins would have called "self-yeast"... This may or may not be the Cézanne known to the art critics and historians, but he's the one I've lived with, the one rewarded with those incontrovertible paintings, so steady in themselves they steady you and the world - and you in the world.


Paul Cézanne, Self Portrait with Beret (ca. 1900). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As an experimental artist who believed art should seek to make serious statements about the external world, Heaney regretted the artificial and conceptual orientation of contemporary poetry:

The main disadvantage of being a poet anywhere at the minute is that there is no strong sense of a critical response which has lived and loved that which it is responding to. Reviewing has turned into something more piecemeal and, in the main, lightweight. What I depend upon are friends who know poetry well and who can quote from it, people for whom poetry is a value lived for and lived out.

Seamus Heaney was a seeker: in his Nobel acceptance speech, he spoke of his "journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival - whether in one's poetry or one's life - turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination." In a conceptual era, he rejected the idea that art was artifice, and made an experimental art that was not only about the reality of life, but was made directly from that reality.

Seamus Heaney (1996). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.