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The Disappointment of Seamus Heaney’s To-Do Checklist

What’s the reverse of poetry? What slows the spark and places sludge within the veins? What deadens the language? What rears up earlier than you with furious and stupefying energy—in the course of the evening, in the course of the day—to make you are feeling such as you’ll by no means write a great line once more?


Not bodily stuff, however psychological stuff. You recognize: issues it is best to have taken care of. The unanswered electronic mail. The unpaid invoice. The unvisited dentist. The undischarged obligation. The unfinished job. The horrible ballast of maturity.

“Within the final two days I’ve written thirty-two letters … The difficulty is, I’ve about thirty-two extra to put in writing: I may ignore them but when I do the sense of worthlessness and hauntedness grows in me, inertia grows and, fuck it, I’m going to eliminate them earlier than I board the aircraft on Thursday.” That is Seamus Heaney in 1985, writing to his buddy Barrie Cooke. Heaney, at this level in his profession, in his life, is a poet of established greatness, a professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard, and his scenario vis-à-vis stuff has clearly change into acute.

The 700-plus pages of The Letters of Seamus Heaney, fantastically edited by Christopher Reid, comprise quite a few fascinating themes and subplots. We see the poet, for instance, first getting his arms on a duplicate of P. V. Glob’s The Lavatory Individuals, the e book whose account of exhumed Iron Age our bodies in Denmark would set off “The Tollund Man” and, in time, half of the poems in North. We see him dealing—infuriated, shocked into vulnerability—with a snooping biographer. (“This textual content which you intend … it truly interferes with the way in which I possess my very own generative floor and reminiscences; is due to this fact doubtlessly disabling to me in what I may nonetheless write.”) And we see him ruing the issue of his fee to translate Beowulf, a each day wrangle with “ingots of Anglo-Saxon, peremptorily dumped clang-lumps of language.”

Principally, nevertheless, we see him assaulted by stuff. I is perhaps projecting right here—I’ve my very own issues with stuff, as you may probably inform—however this can be a consistently renewed theme within the Letters. What he identifies in an early missive as “the lavatory of unfulfilled intentions” is at all times sucking on the Heaney ankles.

“I’ve farted about from broadcast to broadcast to occasional evaluations,” he complains in Could 1975, “and spent days this yr in a torpor of aspiration with out motion.” January 1978 finds him “unwriting, doomed to lectures that I’ve not written and broadcasts that I’ve no abdomen for.” To his Polish translator, in 1982, he laments his personal “lethargy and inefficiency.” To Ted Hughes, extra bardically, he refers to himself as a “lethargic swamp-creature.” To Roger Garfitt— barely much less bardically —“a procrastinating fucker.”

While you’re a well-known poet, stuff comes within the mail: Individuals ship you stuff, within the type of poems and, worse, books to learn and remark upon. “The e book and my not having written about it to you,” Heaney explains painfully to John Wilson Foster, who had despatched him his Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival: A Changeling Artwork, “turned a neurotic locus in my life … Opening new books begins to construct up a resistance issue, particularly after they symbolize all of the procrastination and self-sourness that afflicts one.”

Depart Seamus alone! is the reader’s thought at many factors within the Letters. Cease poking round, importuning him, making requests he’s too good to disregard, sending him your e book concerning the Irish literary revival, heaping stuff upon him. Heaney himself, a cradle Catholic, had a deadly contact of scrupulosity on this space: He appears to have actually felt dangerous, responsible, if he wasn’t making headway with the stuff pile.

The plain comparability right here is with 2007’s Letters of Ted Hughes, additionally edited by Christopher Reid. Hughes was Heaney’s buddy, peer, collaborator (on the anthologies The Rattle Bag and The College Bag), and fellow Faber poet. His correspondence was equally large, equally international, and he had his moments of stuff affliction: “I’m as much as my neck in deferred issues and urgent issues, and at all times the true factor will get shelved.” However Hughes was not, to make use of a line of Reid’s about Heaney, “heroically put-upon.” The thousand nibblings of obligation didn’t appear to do him in to fairly the identical extent. He was too busy negotiating the crosscurrents of his unconscious, placating or irritating the White Goddess, and keeping track of the zodiac. (One letter even finds him sending a privately ready horoscope to that famous astrologer Philip Larkin.)

Little doubt Heaney was engaged in his personal model of this battle for poetic assets. And clearly, for all of the encroachments and the trespasses upon his time, he was to not be distracted or deterred from his actual work: The work itself, my God, testifies powerfully sufficient to that. Stuff or no stuff, he did what he was right here to do.

However simply as soon as, alongside the broad and dutiful street of his letters, I might have preferred to seek out him telling any individual to take their manuscript, invitation, grievance, blurb request, and shove it.

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