Are the spadefuls of praise for Heaney justified

Are we allowed to speak ill of the recently dead? The general convention is No, we are not and when the dead are darlings of the inellectual elite we are usually expected to shovel on the hyperbole in praise of their talents, real or otherwise. But Boggart Blog was never inclined to follow the crowd especially when the honest response is to say “let’s face it he was a bit shite”. So let it be with the late Seamus Heaney.

Over the past few days Heaney has been called “a colossus”. Liam Neeson, a man whose acting ability has often been compared to that of a plank said “he defined our place in the universe”. Andrew Motion (onetime British poet laureate) referred to him as “great”. Heaney’s local university (Queens, Belfast) asserted that: “His contribution to the world of literature has introduced millions of people around the globe to the enjoyment of poetry.”

Really? as someone who has seen my modest scribbling appear in print I would say Heaney, along with his late best mate Ted Hughes was the kind of elitist tosser who put people off poetry for life. Their was the generation of literature professors who believed poetry was something to be written by literature professors for literature professors. If ordinary punters could understand your verse or even worse enjoy it, you were a bad poet.

So what is this brilliant poetry that, according to the hype, has seduced “millions of people”? Can anyone spontaneously remember a single line of Seamus Heaney? When novelist Sean Thomas asked this question of Twitter he reports his laptop screen filled with tumbleweed while the speakers gave out the sound of a soughing wind punctuated by the funereal ringing of a single bell in the old adobe Mission Hall, until someone eventually suggested that Heaney’s memorable talent was, arguably, proven by this line: “Between my finger and thumb, the squat pen rests, I’ll dig with it.”

Well, yes, that line resonates in the memory doesn’t it? We hear it quoted whenever people gather to reflect on digging, thumbs, squatting, and pens that metaphorically resemble spades.

Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times, wrote a two page paean to the Nobel prize-winning bard. In that understated way so typical of the Irish he said “Seamus Heaney made us gasp in wonder that, for all its follies and terrors, Irish culture had such a person in it…” “The great maker of such phrases will not be lost, for he is among the immortals now…” Then he gave an example of an “immortal” Heaney phrase:

Two buckets were easier carried than one.

Well bugger me with the blunt end of a ragman’s trumpet, I’ve had it wrong all these years. Poetry is not about the magic of language, the ability of words to evoke emotions, it is about bland truisms. My doltish teachers always told us to avoid cliche and we, fools that we were believed them.

Forget lines like:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
look on my works you mighty and despair,


But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.


The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.


And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.


cold winds do shake the darling buds of May
and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

because it is all about carrying buckets.

But isn’t poetry supposed to be about love and loss, our relationship with the divine or the splendours of love FFS? OK, I can hear all the protests. Modern poetry isn’t about rising above the daily grind, it is meant to be awkward, dull, obscure, and forgettable, like the working class people elitist intellectual poets look down on. It is about people who sit in ivory towers and imagine the miserable, joyless lives, of drudgery and suffering lived farm hands, mill girls, rude mechanicals, webfoot cockle – women and tidy wives. The Hughes / Heaney school of poetry, for all the poets pretensions to working class origins never understood the sensuality and rich humour of working class life.

Some late twentieth century poets did and managed to write lines that were beautiful and memorable and made you sit up and go “Fuck me, that could be about my life.”.

I bet you know a few phrases of Philip Larkin. “They fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to, but they do,” Or “What will survive of us is love.”

And maybe a few people are familiar with these lines:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

or what about the poet of suburbia, John Betjeman, and the wit and irony of:

“Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun”


“Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

And what about the gobsmackingly brilliant Dylan Thomas poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night“, which is so good it would be a crime to select one or two lines so I recommend you click the link and read it all.

Seamus Heaney is simply not singing from the same song sheet as these guys.


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2 thoughts on “Are the spadefuls of praise for Heaney justified

    • I can give you links to all the poets and their work online. It isn’t representative of my favourite poetry but was selected because I though many people would be familiar with those lines.


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