Tomorrow Seamus Heaney celebrates his 70th birthday. It’s a day to celebrate if only for the reason that John Banville gave in the introduction to No 6 in ten series of Great poets of the 20th century which Faber & Faber in association with The Guardian, published in 2008.
Few poets find a way into the inner ear of the multitude. Mere rhymesters can do it, bards of the birthday card, bluff wearers of the heart on the sleeve, but who would have imagined that an artist of Seamus Heaney’s seriousness, range and subtlety would appeal so directly not only to the sternest tenders of the groves of academe, but also to the simplest hearts. From his first published volume, Death of a Naturalist, which opens with that most tender and determined of manifestos, Digging, Heaney has had a wide and more than enthusiastic following, for whom the awarding of the Nobel prize in 1995 was merely the international community’s due recognition that here was one of the greats.
In the next forty eight hours or so the media are likely to be full of tributes to Heaney, so by way of my contribution to all the activity, here is something you are only likely to get on the internet, the man himself, introduced by William Corbett, doing what he does best before an audience in October 2002 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Writing what he called “auto-critique” of an essay on Heaney for the 1995 reissue of his first collection of essays, The Metropolitan Critic, Clive James remarked:
One of my earliest notorieties was obtained by mentioning Seamus Heaney in the same breath as Yeats. I was certainly right not to regret it; because sooner rather than later, everyone was doing it.
The certainly were, and still are some fourteen years later. Long may they continue to do so.