Last year a Dublin literary magazine sponsored an open competition for the best Seamus Heaney imitation. The winning poem began,

Niall Fitzduff brought a jar
of crab apple jelly
made from crabs off the tree
that grew at Duff’s Corner—
still grows at Duff’s Corner—
a tree I never once saw
with crab apples on it.

This would be hilarious, if Heaney hadn’t written it himself (I was kidding about the competition, though surely he would win). At sixty-seven, his Nobel dusty on the shelf, Heaney is old enough and honored enough not to have to impress anyone. He’s so full of genial sanity and sly little tricks with syntax (no one since Shakespeare has been shiftier at manipulating the sequence of tenses), it’s easy to be gulled by his calloused facility.

The poems in District and...

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