Seamus Heaney and American Poetry

  • Christopher Laverty

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis seeks to understand Heaney’s relationship with the American tradition by
close attention to his intertextual relations with the US writers who influenced him,
alongside a consideration of those he elides – and the reasons for such elision. The
chapters that follow will show how the dominance of certain arguments in Heaney
criticism – to which he himself has contributed – has limited critical understanding of
the Irish poet’s US influences and his experiences in America. While Heaney’s
American exemplars may be fewer in number and diversity than previously thought,
this research demonstrates that they are greater in the intensity of their influence than
existing criticism recognises.

Though I contend that five American writers have influenced Heaney to a degree
not yet understood – Frost, Ransom, Roethke, Lowell, and Bishop – this thesis will also
consider over-estimations of the significance of other writers, as in the case of Heaney’s
1970-71 Berkeley residency, a point which is often misidentified as Heaney’s first
confrontation with American writing. The existing critical argument assumes that
American writing had, until then, been largely invisible to Heaney and that he approved
of the Bay Area poetry he encountered; I suggest in Chapter One that these are
inaccurate premises for a discussion of Heaney’s Californian experience. Rather, as
Chapter Two evidences, the examples Heaney discovered in the 1950s and ’60s of
Frost, Ransom, and Roethke formed the basis for a poetics that remains largely
unchanged throughout the Irish poet’s career. Lowell and Bishop, though not key
influences until later, were also discovered in the 1960s while Heaney was reading,
teaching, and even publishing about American poetry before his Berkeley residency.

Chapters Three and Four demonstrate how Lowell and Bishop provided
examples serviceable to Heaney’s needs during different phases, becoming the enabling
voices behind his public verse, firstly in the 1970s and later in the 1980s and ’90s.
While Chapter Three argues that Heaney masks rather than loses his admiration for
Lowell, as Lowell’s popularity waned, Chapter Four examines the degree to which he
misreads Bishop, a poet who is now understood more sensitively than in her lifetime.
Chapter Four concludes the thesis by arguing that Heaney’s misreading of Bishop, the
only female poet to whom he gives significant praise, is in part a result of his need to
fortify the poetic theory he originally drew from Frost, essentially rendering Bishop a
shadow of his own self.
Date of AwardJul 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorFran Brearton (Supervisor)

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