In 1963, he found Hughes’ Lupercal in the Belfast public library.
“I will always remember taking it down, and opening it at View of a Pig, and – whooh! This was something I had known myself, and I thought it was secret, and nothing to do with modern poetry . . . as way back there in the Middle Ages . . . as Hardy, Jude the Obscure, pig-killing . . . had all been done, you know? And suddenly, here’s Ted.
“I was electrified by the language. It wasn’t a matter of subject matter, but of the transmission of the language. Patrick Kavanagh had an entirely different way. Kavanagh walked in like an old country neighbour coming into your kitchen without knocking (and) started to talk to you.”
“Directness of utterance”, and “command” are praise words for Heaney, but he also has a strong attachment to the poem as an object as much found as made. Finders Keepers was the title of his collected essays, and one of his “greatest hits”, Digging – which, as the first poem in Death of a Naturalist, could scarcely escape the feel of a manifesto – sees the poet’s task as excavation.
“I think of it as something found, all right. But you also have to make it.” He chuckles. “Fundamentally, I think – I’m with Michelangelo in there, if you can find it. If you have an art. Dig it out!” The excavation begins with some sort of a donnee, a gift from the unconscious. “Otherwise I can’t do it, to tell you the truth. It doesn’t need to be much. The donnee can be made to work harder. It used to be I’d touch on the donnee and let it flare, you know – it was over quickly. What I like to do now is use it as an energy source, it moving a little bit further.
As a reader Heaney is careful and deliberate, giving the words time, weighing them, taking obvious pleasure in the unexpected – the tube engine that “evened”, the ground-up turnip matter which collects “bucketful by glistering bucketful”. The endings that hover so delicately or stamp so emphatically on the page are especially effective when read aloud, such as the final line of one of the best poems, The Lift, in which a group of women approached the coffin of the poet’s aunt, “And claimed the final lift beneath the hawthorn”.
You can listen to Seamus Heaney reading from his poems over here, at The Poetry Archive, or catch a video of his first reading at MIT here, or listen to his brilliant Nobel Prize lecture, ‘Crediting Poetry’, over here.