Even though no one reads poetry any more, poets are still in demand. Those who wear the albatross of the Nobel Prize, like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, are on permanent call for lectures, readings, blurbs, and book launches, while suffering a blizzard of invitations to serve as judges, receive honorary degrees, or read the manuscripts of nervous young poets. If the job required kissing babies and opening supermarkets, it would hardly be worth doing.

Somewhere in the midst of the fur-trimmed academic gowns and soapbox punditry, the poetry can get lost. A poet of the hedge and ditch has to remember the rank smell of ploughed earth. For some four decades, Seamus Heaney has served as a reminder of a pastoral world almost forgotten, the culture of the small farm and the turned penny that has become increasingly rare, even in Ireland. Behind him stand Frost, a farmer only briefly and disastrously, and much further...