Some years ago when Seamus Heaney was rumored once again to have missed a close vote for the Nobel Prize in literature, Charlie Haughey, Ireland’s taoiseach (prime minister), was quoted as having remarked: “We wuz robbed!” As Haughey’s humorous use of sports-talk and the first-person plural pronoun suggests, Heaney’s Nobel on some level belongs to Ireland as a whole. And now, with the cease-fire in Northern Ireland, his having been brought up Catholic in the Protestant-dominated province “positions” Heaney as the kind of writer to whom the Nobel committee likes to give its literature prizes.

But this positioning, this convenient fit between poetry and politics, is perhaps not so neat as much of the journalism I have been reading on the subject would have us believe. Not only is Heaney not a product of the Northern Ireland conflict, his is a...

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