Digging (Seamus Heaney poem)

Digging (Seamus Heaney poem) Indirection in Heaney’s Thoughts and Work

Seamus Heaney, as a writer who came of age in the 1960s, could not ignore the political implications that arise in the space of a poem. In both his own poetry and the poetry of others, he examined the merits of the use of indirection and whether indirection is inevitable in a poem. His book Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry from Northern Ireland (1984) explores the works of three other Irish poets; he points out that all three evaded direct mentions of violence. Heaney used this book to argue that the poet’s purpose is to create an image or symbol to represent conflict or other issues that poetry deals with, and in doing so creates a perspective through which the reader can understand that conflict and grapple with it better.

However, some argue that Heaney does not do enough to question the political structures implicit in his writing. Mac Lochlainn, an Irish poet who has published several books in Gaelic, argues in an interview with the poet T.R. Crowe that Heaney’s work “feeds off” of other Irish poetry and culture but in fact bastardizes it by “satisfying the curiosity of a non-Irish speaking audience.” Lochlainn concludes that, while Heaney’s reputation as a fine writer is deserved, his point of view, from his language to his choice of subject matter, is thoroughly Anglicized—oriented towards England and more broadly, to a worldwide English-speaking audience. Lochlainn points to tensions between loyalists and republicans, or those who supported and those who opposed British rule in Ireland. Lochlainn says, “What is a poet if he's hiding behind his own creations, playing the ambiguity game and never coming clean on central issues. It's that old 'whatever you say, say nothing' routine that Seamus Heaney captured so well…He carefully avoids this in his work for fear of the Republican label that could be affixed to an Irish writer who simply tells the truth from their point of view."

Heaney likely would have argued, as he did in Place and Displacement, that the domain of poetry is outside of politics, that the poet must first and foremost honor the craft of poetry, not any political side.