Sean O'Brien's review of the latest (12th) Seamus Heaney collection, Human Chain, in this weekend's Financial Times - a rather blue chip journal - opens with the statement, unqualified, that Heaney is the English-language world's greatest living poet. The certainty of the statement (unverifiable?) took me aback, though I am sure that many poets, critics, and readers enjoy the idea of there being such a poet, and that great poet being Heaney.
I find the rectitude in some of Heaney's work to be too fine, too crafted - as if his genius had been sifted through a mesh that categorically removed the grit and rage and lust, and left only nobler particles. He is without doubt one of the greatest. The Greatest? Ali had that title, but he was Ali. I recall a time when, in the late Thirties, co-living poets would have included WB Yeats, TS Eliot, WH Auden, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound, as well as HD, Marianne Moore and Robert Frost. Now, that time is not surpassed by our great fortune, and even then, it would have been unwise to anoint one to be the greatest, though if I could have, I might have said Yeats and Eliot were tied.
Heaney, it seems to me, is among a constellation of greatness, that would have to include Derek Walcott, Anne Carson, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, John Ashbery, Medbh McGuckian, Geoffrey Hill, and a few others. I understand why, for many British and Irish readers, Heaney's work rears titanic - not least because he seems to follow directly from the line of Hughes - and because his rather wonderful sense of the sound and sense of poetry combines the organic rootedness of Wordsworth with the sometimes classical imaginary of Frost, or later Eliot. He is an exemplary poetic figure for our deracinated times, and seems to offer the quality control we feel might have been lost by the infamous "too many poets" there actually are. With a lot of jabber at the gates, crown a king.
There's rather a bit too much Virgil in Heaney, for my liking - how many times can one poet descend to the underground before they should get a season ticket? - I consider Larkin a greater poet, and his myth-kitty was subtly bare. I look forward to his letters to Monica. By the way, Anthony Thwaite seems to me to be a great English poet, as is Dannie Absie a great Welsh poet. Where is the advocacy for these older poets? Effortless praise has raised the oeuvre of Heaney out of the sometimes sensible range of human discussion. It is time to widen the casting of praise to reach more open ground.