Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-78 (London: Faber & Faber 1980)

The quotations held on these pages comprise a commonplace record of the author’s best-known writings in prose and verse as met with in articles, reviews, monographs and essays and copied to this electronic notebook for purposes of research only. The resultant compilation is neither intended nor believed to constitute a publication or anthology of the poet’s work.

Feeling into Words’, in Preccupations: Selected Prose 1968-78 (Faber 1980), pp.41-60 [extracts].
[On “Digging”:] the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words’ (p.41.) [T]he pen/spade analogy was the simple heart of the matter, and that was a simple matter of almost proverbial common sense.’ (p.42.) a big, coarse-grained navvy of a poem (p.43.)

[On W. R. Rodgers:] much lured by alliteration [quotes: ‘an abrupt people / Who like the spiky consonants of speech …’] (p.44f.)

Craft is the skill of making. It wins competitions in the Irish Times or the New Statesman. It can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the self.


Technique, as I would define it, involves not only a poet’s way with words, his management of metre, rhythm and verbal texture; it involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality. It involves the discovery of way to go out of his normal cognitive bounds and raid the inarticulate: a dynamic alertness that mediates between the origins of feelings in memory and experience and the formal ploys that express these in a work of art. Technique involves the watermarking of your essential patterns of perception, voice and thought into the touch and texture of your lines; it is that whole creative effort of the mind’s and body’s resources to bring the meaning of experience within the jurisdiction of form. Technique is what turns, in Yeats’s phrase, “the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast” and an “idea, something intended, complete.”’ (p.47.)

[On Patrick Kavanagh:] his ‘wobbly craft’ does not preclude technique (p.47.)

Technique is what allows that first stirring of the mind round a word or an image or a memory to grow towards articulation: articulation not necessarily in terms of argument or explication but in terms of its own harmonious capacity for reproduction.’ (p.48.)

When I called my second book Door into the Dark I intended to gesture towards this idea of poetry as point of entry into the buried life of the feelings or as a point of exit for it. …

[On “Undine”:] It was the dark pool of sound that first attracted me (p.52.)

[On the Bogland poems:] I had been vaguely wishing to write a poem about bogland, chiefly because it is a landscape that has a strange assuaging effect on me, one with associations reaching back into early childhood. We used to hear about bog-butter, butter kept fresh for a great number of years under the peat. Then when I was at school the skeleton of an elk had been taken out of a bog nearby and a few of our neighbours had got their photographs in the paper, peering out of its antlers. So I began to get an idea of the bog as the memory of the landscape, or as a landscape that remembered everything that happened in and to it. In fact, if you go round the National Museum in Dublin, you will realise that a great proportion of the most cherished material heritage of Ireland was “found in a bog”. Moreover, since memory was the faculty that supplied me with the first quickening of my own poetry, I had a tentative unrealised need to make a congruence between memory and bogland and, for the want of a better [54] word, our national consciousness. And it all released itself after “We have no prairies …” - but we have bogs. (pp.54-55.)

And when I say religious I am not thinking simply of the sectarian division. To some extent the enmity can be viewed as a struggle between the cults and devotees of a god and a goddess. There is an indigenous territorial numen, a tutelar of the whole island, call her Mother Ireland, Kathleen Ni Houlihan, the poor old woman, the Shan Van Vocht, whatever; and her sovereignty has been temporarily usurped or infringed by a new male cult whose founding fathers were Cromwell, William of Orange and Edward Carson, and whose godhead is incarnate as a rex or caesar resident in a palace in London. What we have is the tail-end of a struggle in a province between territorial piety and imperial power.

Now I realise that this idiom is remote from the agnostic world of economic interest whose iron hand operates in the velvet glove of “talks between elected representatives”, and remote from the political manoeuvres of power-sharing; but it is not remote from the psychology of the Irishmen and Ulstermen who do the killing, and not remote from the bankrupt psychology and mythologies implicit in the terms Irish Catholic and Ulster Protestant. The question, as ever, is “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?” And my answer is, by offering “fit emblems of adversity”. [Goes on to discuss his encounter with P. V. Glob’s The Bog People as a source of such emblems.] (pp.57.)


[T]he goddess of the ground who needed new bridegrooms each winter to bed with her in her sacred place, in the bog, to ensure the renewal and fertility of the territory in the spring. Taken in relation to the tradition of Irish political martyrdom for that cause whose icon is Kathleen Ni Houlihan, this is more than an archaic barbarous rite: it is an archetypal pattern. (p.57.) ‘how persistent the barbaric attitudes are, not only in the slaughter but in the psyche … (p.59.)

[P]oetry as divination, a restoration of the culture to itself. (p.60; quoted in part in Michael Böss, ‘Roots in the Bog: Notion of Identity in the Poetry and Essays of Seamus Heaney’, in Karl-Heinz Westarp & Böss, eds., Ireland: Towards New Identities?, Aarhus UP 1998, pp.134-45, p.137 [as supra].)

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The Sense of Place’ [1977], Preoccupations (London: Faber 1980), pp.131-49 [extracts]
We have to retrieve the underlay of Gaelic legend in order to read the full meaning of the name and to flesh out the topographical record with its human accretions. The whole of the Irish landscape, in John Montague’s words, is a manuscript which we have lost the skill to read. (p.132.)

Tory Island, Knocknarea, Slieve Patrick, all of them deeply steeped in associations from the older culture, will not stir us beyond a visual pleasure unless that culture means something to us, unless the features of the landscape are a mode of communication with a something other than themselves, a something to which we ourselves still feel we might belong. (p.132.)

It is this feeling, assenting, equable marriage between the geographical country and the country of the mind, whether that country of the mind takes its tone unconsciously from a shared oral inherited culture, or from a consciously savoured literary culture, or from both, it is this marriage that constitutes the sense of place in its richest possible manifestation. (p.132.)

The landscape was sacramental, instinct with signs, implying a system of reality beyond the visible realities. Only thirties years ago, and thirty miles from Belfast, I think I experienced this kind of world vestigially and as a result may have retained some vestigial sense of place as it was experience in the older dispensation. (p.132.)

There, if you like, was the foundation for a marvellous or a magical view of the world, a foundation that sustained a diminished structure of lore and superstition and half-pagan, half-Christian thought and practice. (p.133 [goes on to talk about thorn trees and Brigid’s crosses in his childhood.] Such naming of examples is a pleasure to me that is, I believe, itself an earnest of the power of the place. (p.134).

All of this was actual, all of it was part of the ordinary round if only a part of it, but all of it has by now a familiar literary ring to it. And if it has, that is partly due to a new found pride in our own places that flourished suddenly in the late-nineteenth century and resulted in a new literature, a revived interest in [134] folklore, a movement to revive the Irish language, and in general a determination to found or re-found a native tradition. At a time when the spirit of the age was becoming increasingly secular, and when Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough was seeking to banish the mystery of the old faiths and standardise and anatomise the old places, Yeats and his friends embarked on a deliberately counter-cultural movement to reinstate the fairies, to make the world more magical than materialistic, and to elude the social and political interpretations of society in favour of a legendary and literary vision of race.

Although it has long been fashionable to smile indulgently at the Celtic Twilight, it has to be remembered that the movement was the beginning of a discovery of confidence in our own ground, in our own place, in our speech, English and Irish. And it seems to me undeniable that Yeats’s sense of the otherness of his Sligo places led him to seek for a language and an imagery other than the ones which were available to him in the aesthetic modes of literary London.

[Yeats] had, of course, a double purpose. One, to restore a body of old legends and folk beliefs that would bind the people of the Irish place to the body of their own world [...] But his other purpose was to supplement this restored sense of historical place with a new set of associations that would accrue when a modern Irish literature, rooted in its own region and using its own speech, would enter the imaginations of his countrymen. And the classic moment in this endeavour was his meeting with Synge, in a hotel in Paris … .’ (p.135.)

Quotes Synge, in preface to Tinker’s Wedding: ‘The drama [135] is made serious … not by the degree in which it is taken up with problems that are serious in themselves, but by the degree in which it gives the nourishment, not very easy for us to define, on which our imaginations live.’ (p.136.) ‘However, we have to understand also that this nourishment which springs from knowing and belonging to a certain place and a certain mode of life is not just an Irish obsession, nor is the relationship between a literature and a locale with its common language a particularly Irish phenomenon [...; 136]

But I like to remember that Dante was very much a man of a particular place …. And we could also talk about the sense of place in English poetry and find rewarding with talents as diverse as Tennyson and Auden, Arnold and John Clare, Edward Thomas and Geoffrey Hill. [137].

[On Patrick Kavanagh:] [...] His sonnet “Epic” is his confirmation of this about himself and his affirmation of the profound importance of the parochial. Where Yeats had a conscious cultural and, in the largest sense, political purpose in his hallowing of Irish regions, Kavanagh had no such intent. [...] He abjured any national purpose, any belief in Ireland as a “spiritual entity”. And yet, ironically, Kavanagh’s work probably touches the majority of Irish people more immediately and more intimately than most things in Yeats. I am not going to say that this makes Kavanagh a more important writer, but what I do say is that Kavanagh’s fidelity to the unpromising, unspectacular countryside of Monaghan and his rendering of the authentic speech of those parts gave the majority of Irish people, for whom the experience of life on the land was perhaps the most formative, an image of themselves that nourished their sense of themselves in that serious way which Synge talked about in his preface. Kavanagh’s grip on our imaginations stems from our having attended the intimate hedge-school he attended. For thirty yeards he lived the life of a small farmer’s son in the parish of Inniskeen, the life of fairs and football matches, of mass-going and dance-going. He shared his neighbours’ fundamental piety, their flyness, their brusque manners and their vigorous speech. He gambled and rambled among them. He bought and sold land and cattle and corn. Yet all the time, as he stitched himself into [137] the outer patterns of his palce, there was a sensitivity and a yearning that distinguished him. For this poet whom we recognize as being the voice of a communal life had a fiercely individual sense of himself. “A poet is never one of the people”, he declared in his Self-Portrait. “He is detached, remote, and the life of small-time dances and talk about football would not be for him. He might take part but he could not belong.” And that statement could stand as a gloss on the first important poem that Kavanagh wrote, a poem which is about his distance from what is closest to him, a poem too where the life of small-time dances which he affects to disdain is lovingly particularised. [ref. to Preoccupations, p.117, quoting: “The bicycles go by in twos and threes ...”].

I have said that “Iniskeen Road, July Evening” is a love poem … In the first line, “the bicycles go by in twos and threes”. They do not “pass by” or “go past”, as they would in a more standard English voice or place, and in that little touch, Kavanagh touches what I am circling. He is letting the very life blood of the place in that one minute incision. The words “go by” and “blooming”, moreover, are natural and spoken; they are not used as a deliberate mark of folksiness or as a separate language, in the way that Irish speech is ritualised by Synge. … The poet meets his people at eye-level, he hears them shouting through the hedge and not through the chinks in a loft floor, the way Synge heard his literary speech in Co. Wicklow. (p.138.)


He cherished the ordinary, the actual, the known, the unimportant. [Quotes:]

‘Parochialism is universal: it deals with the fundamentals. It is not by the so called national dailies that people who emigrate keep in touch with their roots. In London, outside the Catholic churches, the big run is on the local Irish papers. Lonely on Highgate Hill, outside St. Joseph’s Church, I rushed to buy my Dundalk Democrat, and reading it I was back in my native fields. Now as I analyse myself I realise that throughout everything I write, there is this constantly recurring motif of the need to go back … So it is for these reasons that I return to the local newspapers. Who has died? Who has sold his farm? (here p.139.)

[Heaney compares Kavanagh and Montague quoting the latter at some length on Knockmany/Cnoc Maine:] Kavanagh’s eye has been used to bending over the ground before it ever bent over a book but we feel with Montague that the case is vice versa. … Kavanagh’s place-names are used here as posts to fence out a personal language. But Montague’s are rather sounding lines, rods to plumb the depths of a shared and diminished culture. They are redolent not only of his personal life but of the history of his people, disinherited and dispossessed. What are most resonant and cherished in the names of Montague’s places are their tribal and etymological implications.

Both Kavanagh and Montague explore a hidden Ulster, to alter Daniel Corkery’s suggestive phrase, and Montague’s exploration follows Corkery’s tracks in a way that Kavanagh’s does not. There is an element of cultural and political resistance and retrieval in Montague’s work that is absent from Kavanagh’s. What is hidden at the bottom of Montague’s region is first of all a pagan civilisation centred on the O’Neill inauguration stone at Tullyhogue. The ancient feminine religion of Northern Europe through which he looks and the landscape becomes a memory, a piety, a loved mother. The present is suffused with the past … [141] At the bottom of Kavanagh’s imagination there is no pagan queen, no mystique of the national, the mythic or the tribal; ‘instead there is the childish piety of the Morning Offering prayer … I believe the spirit of this prayer, the child’s open-eyed attention to the small and the familiar, is fundamental to Kavanagh’s vision, as is the child’s religious belief that if each action, however small, is offered up for love, then in the eyes of God it is as momentous in its negligible, casual silence as the great, noisy cataclysmic and famous acts that make up history. [… &c.] (pp.141-42.)

Kavanagh’s sense of place involves detachment, Montague’s attachment. When Montague asks who he is, he is forced to seek a connection with a history and a heritage; before he affirms a [142] personal identity, he points to a national identity, and his region and his community provide a lifeline to it. Whereas Kavanagh flees the abstractions of nationalism, political or cultural. To find himself, de detaches himself rather than attaches himself to the communal. (pp.142-43.)

[On Robert Lloyd Praeger, writing of Co. Tyrone:] his sense of the place is, on the whole, that it is no place [quotes:]

Now that I wish to write about it, I find it is a curiously negative tract, with a paucity of outstanding features when its size and variety of surface are considered [… &c.] A minor excitement is caused by the occurrence in this neighbourhood of a small coal-field, but the strata have been so much disturbed by earth-movements that the seams are broken up by faulting, tending to make mining difficulty and expensive.’ (No source; here p.144.)

[Heaney comments:] This is also a subjective reaction, of course: who is to say objectively that Tyrone is a “curiously negative tract” and that the Sperrins are “the least inspiring of the Irish mountains”? Who (except someone with an incurable taste for punning) will [144] agree that a small coal-field constitutes “a minor excitement”? The clue to Praeger’s sense of place comes a couple of paragraphs later when he moves into Fermanagh and declares it “more picturesque and from many points of view more interesting”. His point of view is visual, geological, not like Kavanagh’s, emotional and definitive. The Tyrone landscape, for him, is not hallowed by associations that come from growing up and thinking oneself back into the place. The eye is regulated by laws of aesthetics and the disciplines of physical geography, and not, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, by the primary laws of our nature, the laws of feeling. (…; pp.144-45).

[On Wordsworth:] that temperate understanding of the relationship between a person and his place, of the way the surface of the earth can be accepted into and be a steadying influence upon the quiet depths of the mind, leads me to another poet of our places [John Hewitt] (p.145.)

Hewitt’s poems take their inspiration now from the literate historical reading of his place and his culture, now from the illiterate messages beat out in his pulses as he walks our countryside. He looks at the world now with the analytic and profane eye of a man of the left, now with the affectionate and feeling eye of “an Ulsterman of planter stock”. [Quotes “Conacre”, 1943]

Yet, as well as granting that these stirrings of the depths may be “graces” inhabiting the same element as mystical apprehensions [146], Hewitt is also in possession of another vocabulary and another mode of understanding. His attachment to his actual country involves attachment to the idea of country: his cherishing of the habitat is symptomatic of his history, and that is the history of the colonist, who, much like Wordsworth’s Michael, has grown to be native to his fields through the accretions of human memory and human association. [...; quotes ‘The Colony’]

It has been said that John Hewitt expresses the crisis of identity experienced by the Planter stock but the identity spoken for and through these lines seems to me more composed than critical. In the Glens of Antrim this poet senses himself, as his fictional colonist also does, as co-inhabitant but not as kin with the natives. He loves their sacral understandings of their place but cannot share fully what he calls “the enchantments of the old tree magic”

[Compares his megaliths of English and Irish provenance with Montague’s dolmen on Knockmany Mtn.] John Hewitt knows [147] where he stands and he can also watch himself taking his stand. His civilised mind takes its temper from a political, literary and religious tradition that is English, but his instincts, his eye and ear, are tutored by the Ulster landscape, and it is in the rag-and-bone shop of the instincts that a poetry begins and ends, though it can raise itself by the ladders of intelligence towards a platform and a politics. (pp.146-47).

It could be said of the poets I have considered that their sense of place is a physical one but I want to turn finally and briefly to three younger writers for whom the sense of place might be termed metaphysical. In the work of Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon place symbolizes a personal drama before it epitomizes a communal situation. Mahon’s bleak Glengormley and bleaker still North Antrim, Longley’s botanically abundant west of Ireland and his nostalgically apprehended bleaching greens, Muldoon’s rivery and apple-dappled Armagh, are all places that do not have to be proved or vindicated in the way Kavanagh’s Monaghan or Montague’s Tyrone or John Hewitt’s braes and glens have to be. They exist to serve the poet and not vice versa. None of these poets surrenders himself to the mythology of his place but instead each subdues the place to become an element in his own private mythology. They may be preyed upon in life by the consequences of living on this island now, but their art is a mode of play to outface the predatory circumstances. Muldoon’s wry and lyrical wit, Longley’s amorous vocabularies, Mahon’s visionary desolation are personal poetic gifts, but as the young Yeats once “sought to weave an always personal emotion into a general pattern of myth and symbol” so these poets weave their individual feelings round places they and we know, in a speech that they and we share; and in a world where the sacral vision of place is almost completely eradicated they offer in their art what Michael Longley has called “the sacraments we invent for ourselves”.

We are no longer innocent, we are no longer just parishioners of the local. We go to Paris at Easter instead of rolling eggs on the hill at the gable. ’Chicken Marengo! It’s a far cry from the Moy’, Paul Muldoon says in a line depth-charged with architectural history. Yet those primary laws of our nature are still operative. We are dwellers, we are namers, we are lovers, we [148] make homes and search for our histories. And when we look for the history of our sensibilities I am convinced, as Professor J. C. Beckett was convinced about the history of Ireland generally, that it is to the stable element, the land itself, that we must look for continuity.’ [p.149; End].

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