When Seamus Heaney was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a friend of mine sent him some poems for comment. They were returned with a courteous note advising him to “keep your eye clear, your heart strong, your whole writing self braced and unbreathy.” My friend’s pleasure at this encouragement was somewhat diminished when, long afterwards, he heard Heaney say in an interview that that was his standard response when people sent him bad poems. Yet when one reads, in Christopher Reid’s edition of The Letters of Seamus Heaney, the sort of thing Heaney wrote to people whose poems he actually liked, one feels my friend had the best of it.1 Ted Hughes is told that his collection Wolfwatching is “both plasm-tender and...


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