Arts

Book review: 100 Poems a family compilation that fulfils a long-held ambition of the late Seamus Heaney

A new collection of poems by Seamus Heaney compiled by the late poet's family is published next week

100 Poems by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber, priced £10.99 (Kindle edition £6.47). Available June 28

GIVEN the universal high esteem in which poet and Nobel prizewinner Seamus Heaney is held, the question can reasonably be asked as to just why he dominates a gilded generation. That is, the group of writers including Michael Longley, Derek Mahon et al.

Some years back, the northern Irish academic Professor Ian Christie told me he had been slightly surprised at Heaney’s pre-eminence since some of his contemporaries had a more universal voice.

Maybe the professor was missing the point, as this beautiful new collection of Heaney’s work, 100 Poems (Faber), indicates. It is a special collection, compiled by Seamus Heaney’s family, which fulfils the poet’s long-held ambition. He wanted to bring out a special anthology culled from every stage of his long career but never achieved that wish. Now he has posthumously, and this greatest hits (to be irreverent) was worth the wait.

For it is the marvellous particularity of Heaney’s poetry, from Digging to Anahorish, that makes him universally relevant. It is the way he nails Irish identity in poems such as Bogland that provides us with a way into the human condition.

It’s significant that, as he writes, “The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. / The wet centre is bottomless.” And in The Tollund Man, inspired by the discovery of the well preserved ancestor in Jutland, Heaney says when he visits the site, he will recognise it although it is foreign. “In the old man-killing parishes / I will feel lost, / Unhappy and at home.”

The big subjects are as sharply yet warmly registered by Heaney, who was pitch perfect in emotional matters, as you remember from school.

In A Call, the poet uses caesuras or mid-line breaks to cleverly anticipate the ultimate break with his father. He phones and his mother runs to get his father, out weeding in the garden. There’s a line break from her comment to the poet waiting on the line and the poet listens as he waits to the ticking of hall clocks. The poem ends with this: “And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays, / This is how Death would summon Everyman.”

The final line is great, summing up everything about family relationships and our Western inhibitions. “Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.”

Love is of course superbly caught in 100 Poems. Marie Heaney inspired not a few of these poems and a few hundred yards from where I am writing, a walk the future young lovers took on the Lagan towpath inspires a delicious image. Seamus Heaney opens Twice Shy with “Her scarf a la Bardot, / In suede flats for the walk, / She came with me one evening/For air and friendly talk.”

He gets perfectly the excitement before the first embrace and the urban landscape seems to join in the couple’s anticipation – “Traffic holdings its breath,/Sky a tense diaphragm…” They experience a “vacuum of need” but hold back, not wanting to spoil a potentially great romance which is of course what the Heaneys had. In Tate’s Avenue we happily get what came next, wedded bliss and erotic fulfilment on a plaid rug.

In this wonderfully produced book's family note, daughter Catherine Heaney writes that this collection may differ from the one her father planned or from a collection that might have been produced by an independent editor, adding: “rather than being an ‘in memoriam’ volume, this collection is intended as a celebration of the extraordinary person who gave us these poems”.

It succeeds brilliantly in that ambition.

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