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Poet Seamus Heaney Wins Nobel Prize

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 1995; Page B01

A close contender for more than a decade, Seamus Heaney was finally awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday.

Heaney, the first Irish poet to win the prize since William Butler Yeats in 1923, was praised by the Swedish Academy for his subtle and profound approach to the violence in his native Northern Ireland and "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past." His Nobel Prize is worth $1 million.

At Faber & Faber, his London publishing house, there was excitement -- and confusion. The poet and his wife, Marie, were on vacation in the Greek islands and unreachable by telephone. His British editor, Christopher Reid, was also on holiday.

Jonathan Galassi, Heaney's American editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, said: "What impresses me most about Seamus is his profound naturalness. In a tone that's all reasonableness and modesty, he can do almost anything."

Galassi described Heaney as both craftsman and philosopher. "He can use form so beautifully you don't even notice it. There's a subtlety of mind in his poetry."

When asked about Heaney's politics, Galassi said that for a Catholic born in Northern Ireland, "there's nothing of the rabid partisan in his poetry. He humanizes his situation. He shows the ironies."

The poet was born on a 40-acre cattle farm in County Derry just west of Belfast in 1939, the year Yeats died. The oldest of nine children, Heaney moved to Dublin in 1976 and has lived there since, aside from occasional teaching stints at Oxford University and Harvard.

Heaney has had remarkable success, both critical and popular, for a poet in the late 20th century. At 27, he published his first volume of verse, "Death of a Naturalist." The book earned him several literary prizes. Since those early accolades, Heaney has won just about every major award available to poets, including the Irish Academy of Letters Award in 1975, the Bennett Award in 1982 and a Lannan Literary Award in 1990.

He is considered by many critics to be one of the three greatest living poets, along with Russian-born American Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott of Trinidad, both of whom have won the Nobel Prize. Brodsky won in 1987, Walcott in 1992. The literati have just been waiting for the third bell to chime.

Yesterday's announcement brought forth an avalanche of laudatory statements from fellow poets and writers.

"As the guardian spirit of Irish poetry, Seamus Heaney has, like his predecessor Yeats, received his just recognition," said Walcott in a statement.

"It's absolutely thrilling," said Irish poet Paul Muldoon. "Seamus Heaney is the best poet now writing in the English language if not in any language. This is a great day for Irish poetry and poetry throughout the world. Seamus Heaney has been an inspiration to me and to anyone who is involved in trying to make sense of themselves through poetry."

From his home near Tenley Circle, Washington poet Anthony Hecht said he was "absolutely delighted" that his friend Heaney had won. "I had lunch with him in Dublin this past summer and he was in fine fettle. He seemed to know everybody in the city."

Hecht spoke of Heaney's joie de vivre and general good nature. Heaney once turned to Hecht and said, "There is no such thing as a large whiskey."

Heaney's wife, Marie, added, "Or a short poetry reading."

"He's a superb poet," Hecht said. "He also happens to be a wonderful person."

He added, "Many of his poems have a stark simplicity. Like the Irish landscape."

With his poetry, Heaney has been able to rise above the mundane aspects of politics and religion. He has used the world around him -- his own family story, the natural distinctiveness of Ireland, his nation's complicated history and his own faith -- to explore the significance of life and the inner workings of the human heart.

John Breslin, chaplain of Georgetown University and a Heaney scholar, said, "He's dealt with his Catholicism in different stages in his poetry."

In the early poem "Freedman," Breslin says, Heaney describes the experience of being marked with a cross on Ash Wednesday in Belfast, "of being a Catholic, a minority, in a Protestant land."

One of the earth-starred denizens, indelibly,
I sought the mark in vain on the groomed optimi:
Their estimating, census-taking eyes
Fastened on my mouldy brow like lampreys.

Breslin said that Heaney struggles with the marriage of religion and poetry. He referred to the poem "Sweeney Redivivus" as one of Heaney's most mature poems about Christianity in the modern world and his participation in it. Heaney draws a parallel between the sacrament of baptism and the spring of inspiration.

Heaney has written 11 volumes of poetry, a play and three collections of criticism, including "The Redress of Poetry," being published in the United States next month.

Though he is widely known as a lion in literary circles, at the Plough and Stars pub in Cambridge, Mass., Heaney is just another customer.

Bartender Muiris O'Beachain said Heaney is very unassuming. "He has a drink here every now and then. Comes in with his wife sometimes. He might be sitting next to a plumber or a high-powered lawyer. No airs or graces."

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
-- From "Selected Poems, 1966-1987," by Seamus Heaney

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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