Seamus HeaneyLiterary Lion or Mr. Potato-Head?

In a flattering  Harvard magazine cover story on Seamus Heaney published three years ago, ‘Seamus Heaney, Digging with the Pen: On rhymes and responsibilites,’ Adam Kirsch, Heaney’s former workshop student at Harvard, obediently strives to glorify his old prof and Nobel Prize winner.  

Kirsch, after making introductory remarks on poets’ “responsibility” to the “ideal reader,” turns to Heaney’s most famous poem (unfortunately for Heaney) “Digging:”

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

There’s nothing wrong with honoring labor and one’s digging ancestors, as Kirsch hails Heaney for doing here.

The problem begins when the poet—as poet—attempts to own the ‘digging’ legacy—in his poem

In a heavy-handed manner, at odds with all that is poetical, the poet feels impelled to inform us that his pen, which rests “between” his “finger” and his “thumb” (as if anyone needed to be informed how to hold a pen) is “squat,” (like the gun in line 2, like the digging spade, like the poet’s fist?) and, since he has “no spade” he will “dig” with his “pen/gun.”   The metaphorical contraption of Heaney’s poem is rudely forced in a ham-fisted manner as would invite derision were such a thing handed in by a writing student to a writing class, and an example would surely be made: this is the kind of  forced metaphorical writing which should be avoided at all costs.

It’s not a smooth metaphor.  Pens don’t dig. 

Not only is Heaney going to dig with his snug, squat pen, but his “head” breathes in the inspiration of potato-smell from cut “roots.”  

If we ask how an ivory tower icon like Seamus Heaney, with his Harvard Chair, his T.S. Eliot Prize, and his Nobel could  have such a wretched poem (wretched even for a schoolboy) as his best-known poem, it might be well to remember that before he was an ivory tower icon he was the humble, Derry, Peat-moss, poet, and this very identity of a potato-digging, poor Irish Catholic, an Irishman from the fields, a genuine salt-of-the-earth, may have allowed his work to circumvent those close-reading strictures that would have otherwise condemned such bathetic, metaphorical excess.   

The “squat,” sweaty laborer was allowed his excesses as the token Irish Poet.  

The excessive gutterality of his poetry (the passage quoted from “Digging” is a pretty good example)  blends in with the excessive nature of Heaney’s metaphors, combining to produce a style which is not so much poetic as thick—the triumph of which is a sly joke played in the snobby, puritan halls of Harvard as Heaney attempts to chase down the ghost of T.S. Eliot.

When Heaney is not slathering on the metaphors, he’s often amassing sharp, primitive objects.  Kirsch quotes Heaney from his book District and Circle:

In an age of bare hands
and cast iron,

the clamp-on meat-mincer,
the double flywheeled water-pump,

it dug its heels in among wooden tubs
and troughs of slops,

hotter than body heat
in summertime, cold in winter

as winters body armour,
a barrel-chested breast-plate

standing guard
on four braced greaves.

 “The lip-smacking assonance of clamp and pump,” Kirsch writes, anxious to make Heaney’s work not only “responsible,” but a pleasure and a delight.

These lines, however, feel like a torturer’s inventory from the Saw films.  

They are hardly “lip-smacking.”  

Heaney is no grinning Irish jester at the Blueblood court of Harvard.

This tied-up bear will tear you to pieces if you get too close.  

Kirsch is merely heaping on praise when he says: “Heaney is also, and primarily, a poet of pleasure… What makes Heaney a lovable poet, rather than just an admirable one, is that his sense of responsibility extends to pleasure itself…”  

Heaney is not a “lovable poet” or a poet of “pleasure.”  

Heaney loves assonance, but assonance which slobbers all over the reader is not necessarily a pleasing effect—especially when it seems to have a mind of its own.

Heaney is best when he writes dramatically.    His style of metaphor and thing-ism tends to be self-indulgent and is mostly painful to read.  I could list little excellences in Heaney’s poetry all day, but I am concerned here with the true picture of Heaney’s reputation. 

Heaney looks hard at the world.   It’s time a critic looked hard back.


  1. poetryandporse said,

    December 2, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    I have seen Heaney around on the scene here, and it is reverance alright which surrounds the person. He radiates a very honest glow, of the responsible person, a public smiling man. Personally, I like his work and in his prose especially, Heaney proves to me, why he is the best well known poet occupying a unique position in the realm of our Langauge.

    He is immersed in and founds the intellectual-creative bass of his practice, on an ancient poetic very few know nor care about, enough to make it the very centre of our assays and travails through consciousness.

    We all have our blindspots, and if Heaney is one, so be it: but at some level we need connect the theory with the life, seperate the textual from the human. Realise we are all the same, none of us better nor worse, life a game, the quarrel with self, rhetoric and poetry, two of the written arts. One the forensic demolisher and builder making the technology of the intellect, compliant and decanting what it is we wish to do, into a printed page of defence and attack, the apologia, explanation of what it is, this thing filíocht called verbal magic, its original semantic import from so far back, 1000 years before the New World’s birth, on the pages time forgot, poetry the word in this Language of the 2-300 million that is, 1 percent of the 1.8 billion with a functioning level of literacy in English – from one word to the lot, an audience of potential luvvies, the one percent of everyone with a passion for verse, one in a hundred of us, a majority agree, the Mossbawn magus is the one to watch, beat, equal and..

    One brief flash of reality that is: us alone and as the collective seven bill, two of which have some smattering of the language manifest in the light vibration of this life, reality our consciousness, we show ourselves via a technology of the intellect, alone, us lens experiencing consciousness in our physical container, in this Language. What is important is Love.

  2. poetryandporse said,

    December 2, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Arghh, just lost a post with a lot of links in it, I hit send and..nada

  3. thomasbrady said,

    December 2, 2009 at 4:35 pm


    I’ve always been impressed by Heaney’s prose.

    His ear is extremely tuned into a wide spectrum of assonance frequency.

    But I often feel bogged down by the slog of his lyricism, repelled by the hardness of his subjects.

    He’s too earthy for my taste.

    I find phrases like “the music of what happens” to be…pedantic.

    As a critic, he seems too ready to suck up to your T.S Eliot or your William Butler Yeats.

    I have no doubt he’s a ‘good man,’ if that means anything.

    Here’s a couple of questions for you.

    1. Does he have any detractors? Or is he a god without a nick from where you stand?

    2. If you would list his top 10 poems, what would they be?


  4. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 2, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Tom asked my advice about this rant before he posted it and I wrote him right back saying I felt it was simply too big a bite — that it was such a big bite I felt I’d lost a whole mouthful of flesh myself!

    Here’s what he said in reply, and I wonder if you buy it:

    Believe me, I did think it was too harsh, but I gave it some thought, and my view is this: it’s better in the long run for students and for poets everywhere that we don’t walk on egg shells around icons. No sacred cows. I’m not informed enough re: Irish politics, who is, really? But Heaney the poet is the issue here, and in my opinion, Heaney is a very great poet with some very great flaws–and someone’s got to point them out and Letters ultimately benefits for it. I really think I’ve expressed something that a lot of people will agree with, saying to themselves, “Yes that’s what I’ve always thought, but couldn’t bring myself to express.”

    I don’t require agreement on the Heaney piece, but I honestly think it stays within the bounds of good taste even as it delivers some blows. “Mr Potato-Head” is nasty, I’ll agree. I think of it as an 18th century caricature, or Rabelasian wit. I don’t think we need to be so thin-skinned as to prohibit this. I think Letters lacks a feisty honesty today, and that’s a big reason why poetry is so dead to the public. I want to bring poetry back into the public sphere, and if I have to break a few eggs to accomplish this, I will. Heaney and “potato” are public—the line I would never cross is delving into private, personal issues.

    Tell me what you think….this is pretty important…are we going to be able to stand by a rough treatment of a pretty beloved icon like Heaney?

    If you read my piece I don’t totally trash him…I didn’t research to find if any critic has ever trashed him…I imagine he’s pretty untouchable…which is a negative, but also a plus for us in my view…


    Scarriet is an 18th Century red, red rag and Tom is here waving it alright!


  5. poetryandporse said,

    December 2, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    I am sure Heaney won’t be losing any sleep over what gets said here.

    I’ll have to get back on the list of favourites, but the Station Island sequence is what I think represents his high-point, coming into his own and after that he took a dip into translations.

    ‘The music of what happens’ is not Heaney’s by the way: it is a reply given by, dependingon the source, both Finn McCool and Cuchulainn, the heroes of the sagas, and it is in response to the question: what is your favourite music? The music of what happens, which one of the oldest words for poetry, dán – ‘poetry, gift-talent-vocation, fate-destiny as a unitary concept’ captures.

    Poetry in the original word, dán, coming from the Tuatha De Danann, (people of the goddess Danu, or people of Art) had a far wider semantic spread, and was applied to a persons life, the fate of a person. An old saying is ‘a man cannot drown whose dán (fate) it is to be hung.’

    So poetry in this set-up means a person’s entire life, the poetry you live, your life a poem and the ‘music of what happens’ poetry itself.

  6. garybfitzgerald said,

    December 2, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Jackson Pollock was a Cubist

    Jackson Pollock was a Cubist,
    Picasso painted pears.
    Oranges and apples,
    bananas and pears.
    Some once wrote in rhyme.

    Picasso found a new dimension,
    Pollock the dance the organic shares.
    Poets touched the meaning
    of the unstructured now,
    Picasso the structure of time.
    Pollock found the Tao.

    a poet never wrote,
    forsaking poetry.
    Like Pollock and Picasso found
    the finite boundary,
    and then, too, went beyond.
    Beyond the page and ink to sky,
    to wind and clouds and breath
    and birds,
    to perfect symmetry.
    He wrote new poems every day
    without the need for words.

    His life was poetry.

    Copyright 2005 – Evolving: Poems 1965-2005, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  7. thomasbrady said,

    December 2, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    I prefer the ‘music of what doesn’t happen.’

    ‘What happens’ overwhelms ‘the music’ in my view, but then I’m sometimes accused of being too Paterian.

    I mistrust the idea of a ‘poetic tribe’ as much as I do a ‘religious state.’

    “The music of what happens” is the title of a very old Helen Vendler book in which she lauds Heaney quite a bit–that was the source of my confusion.

    Thanks for setting me straight.

  8. thomasbrady said,

    December 2, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    As much as I believe that ‘life is poetry’ in a down n’ dirty, unpretentious sort of way, I find the general sort of thinking which says ‘poetry is life’ and ‘life is poetry’ slightly annoying.

    I put it in the same category as people who love to insist that ‘baseball is just like life.’

    Yea…poetry is life…baseball is life…tao is life…life is life…

    It’s just a bit too…easy, though sometimes it’s nice to plop into that comfortable old chair, raise a glass of beer and look through it before drinking…

  9. thomasbrady said,

    December 2, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    “I am sure Heaney won’t be losing any sleep over what gets said here.”

    That’s good! I was dreading the angry phone call…

  10. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 3, 2009 at 2:50 am

    Now there’s the drinking companion I want, the one who looks through the glass before drinking!

    Or takes aim with the pen and fires as he’s throwing the dart.

    And Desmond, Seamus Heaney doesn’t have to lose any sleep over what’s being said here because we’re talking to each other not him. The Lard in the Bard is our problem, not his — needless to say, only the individual can lose weight if the tribe is to reduce!

    I think that’s what’s really different about us here on Scarriet — we’re serious, we take responsibility for what poetry is, and we know we can change it because we take responsibility for ourselves and our views. We can’t change Mark Strand or Heaney or Collins, but we can feel free to take on all the best problems. We don’t have to wait for anybody’s permission, what’s more check it out with Kaltica, Chrissiekl, or dreary Travis Nichols.

    I mean, we’re that serious!


  11. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 3, 2009 at 3:03 am

    And thanks for the good poem, Gary.

    a poet never wrote
    forsaking poetry.

    That’s just what Tom meant, I think — but the pressures are tremendous today, and we’ve had to come here to say it, and in doing so remain true.

    Love the way you use that word “once” in the poem — and what a word it is too. The Thai language is based on vowels and is monosyllabic, so you never get consonant clusters like that. It’s almost 3 syllables in fact — a mantra, a nasal for reflection, and a flickering tongue right at the end.

    Jackson Pollock was a Cubist,
    Picasso painted pears.

    “Cubist,/ once” — wonderful!


  12. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 3, 2009 at 5:49 am

    For Tom:


    …………………….Besides, this Duncan 

    Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
    So clear in his great office, that his virtues
    Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against 

    The deep damnation of his taking-off; 

    And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
    Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubins, horsed
    Upon the sightless couriers of the air, 

    Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye, 

    That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
    To prick the sides of my intent, but only
    Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself 

    And falls on the other…


    Our two souls therefore, which are one,
    …….Though I must go, endure not yet 

    A breach, but an expansion,
    …….Like gold to aery thinness beat.

    If they be two, they are two so
    …….As stiff twin compasses are two ; 

    Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
    …….To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

    And though it in the centre sit,
    …….Yet, when the other far doth roam,
    It leans, and hearkens after it,
    …….And grows erect, as that comes home.


    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    …They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    …And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    …By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    …And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    …It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    …And don’t have any kids yourself.


    “I have never known anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible.”
    ………………………………Ezra Pound to Margaret Anderson (1917}

  13. poetryandporse said,

    December 3, 2009 at 7:53 am

    The poetry is life, music of what happens idea, doesn’t have a parrallel in, what Don S calls, Am Po or English poetry, but it does in the bardic tradition. Art and the old irish word for poetry, were interchangeable, because filiocht, ‘verbal magic’ – dán – poetry, was the major art they had. So, Art is Life, Art in the widest most all encompassing sense.

    But beyond all this, I think there are two poles of positive and negative, and if we define our poetic in opposition to something, concentrate on saying what poetry is ‘not’ – it is easy to fall into the habit of only saying ‘no, no, no’ that is ‘not’ what poetry is, rather than concentrating on the Joy and praise and the positive aspect of what poetry is.

  14. thomasbrady said,

    March 1, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    I am happy to report that despite the expected grumbling from Heaney fans, private correspondence is running 3 to 1 in favor of the general thrust of this article.