Seamus Heaney: Plain-spoken Earth and Poetic Space of Truth
When a poet dies, some parts of the world weep. Folks so inclined hear words running through their head like metamorphosed nymphs. Those who are part of the world’s folk bookish in nature read about the lives of poets and “The Lives of the Poets” and sometimes write the very same things or even a sonnet in feverish pentameter.
When an Irish poet dies, the whole world cries—and sings and praises as if a pope or an honest politician had died, or worse, a pop or movie star. The Irish in their news journals and online, they not only mourn and commemorate—Irish gifts both—but intemperately argue, critiquing the obituaries and sometimes the late poet himself, as if it were required to be disrespectful in the end.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney died Aug. 30, and the world noticed so much that if you were inclined to love poets and poetry, you wanted to almost dance to celebrate the size of the outpouring. Indeed, as every obituary tells you that his death—he had been in ill health for some time—at the age of 74 was a great loss, you think there must have been many a poem left in him if he had lived to a ripe or even honestly and very mature age.
As it was, Heaney had already written plenty of enduring works, works which were not just in the jealous domain of people who love poetry but appealed to people who normally didn’t—men and women alike. His poems have a deceptively plain-spoken feel and sound to them. He opened up the field and the curled gates of the domain like a father welcoming a whole tribe of prodigal sons, of whom there are many in Ireland and elsewhere.
He was famous. Different photographs of him graced the pages of such publications as the Washington Post, the Irish Times and the front page of the Saturday New York Times, which displayed the photograph by Steven Pyke for Getty Images a late-life portrait, the skeptical, intense side glance, eloquent eyebrows, thin, set lips and sage head of white hair above a headline: “He Wove Irish Strife and Soil Into Silken Verse.” It’s not likely he’d be making the cover of Time, what with the Syrian business, or People Magazine, what with poor Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones separating, her being Welsh and all.
But it shouldn’t be a surprise if he had. His poetry often veered into the old euphemistic Irish troubles of North and South, Dublin and Belfast, the fire of bombs and ancient political curses -- enough so that he wrote the line “be advised, my passport’s green/no glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the Queen.” You can be certain that his work—in its corners and travails and travels—might attract the readers of the Economist and People Magazine alike at some fine night’s points.
In all the papers, this Nobel Prize for Literature honoree who never expected to be making a speech in Stockholm was called “the greatest Irish poet since W.B. Yeats,” a man of the generation of Ted Hughes and in the ranks of not only Yeats but Joyce and Beckett, the novelist and the playwright giants of Ireland. But why stop at the Irish, where poems, spoken, sung and written and repeated as a birthright, where the color red, the fiddler adept, are strung into the genetic code like a dance? He had the blood of farmers and farmland in him, but also the academics’ wild penchant for classicism—he first gained true fame with his translation of “Beowulf,” which begins with in mid-tale, with the word “so.”
He lived a blessed life in some ways—none of that drunk and half in love with death and despair down at the corner pub stuff like the crazy Welshman Dylan Thomas, or the fatally sad women of his peer Ted Hughes, who nonetheless became the English laureate. He lived the life of son, husband father, and, yes, eventually, sage and wise men, befriended by millions of readers and powerful folk, at times.
He taught and gave speeches, to be sure. People seemed to preternaturally treat him with affection and that face changed over the years once his hair turned white. His voice had the lilt—look him up on YouTube talking about his life, reading or from memory speaking the poem “Digging,” the first poem in his book of selected poems, 1966-1996 called “Opened Ground.” It’s a telling title, as are poems called “Death of a Naturalist” and “A Call,” because—this son (oldest of eight children)---roots deep in the earth, vegetables, the sounds of frogs and birds and weeds being pulled out, the rawest memories are true subjects of many of his poems. One can imagine that the son of the land becoming a poet in modern times clashes with the past:
“Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravely ground:
My father, digging. I look down…..
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.”
These are the first and last lines of “Digging”—in its ambition, fathers and son and again the dirt and rich loam of earth figure strongly—and they return again and again as in “A Call”, in which the poet recalls and telephones his father, who’s outside, pulling weeds, which ends with the father coming to the phone: “Next thing, he spoke, and I nearly said I loved him.”
He was, before and after all, born on a farm in County Londonderry, which had echoes and overtones for him all of his life.
“I like to play with words sometimes,” he said in an interview. “Words that are different but sound the same, like heard and herd. And I think a poet wants and needs to be heard but must not be a part of the herd. Although, that’s never that simple.”
Like many poets, he was contemporaneous, but courted classicism, not only in “Beowulf” but also in poems which echoed Homer, clanged with talk by Greek and Trojan heroes outside the city gates. He talked about medieval roots and pulled them. In these, those conversational tones at times, those earthy unveilings of earth, the mixing of simple visions doing difficult dances, he was like Cummings, Eliot, Jeffers, Pound, affable brilliance on display.
In the Irish Times, where he was mourned loud enough to think you heard weepings and the odd pint being raised in church, a postscript scuffle or two developed in the comments section, some folks complaining about the quality of the obituary, others perceiving an under appreciation here and there. Heaney might have liked that: the bloody quarrels being subdued to crank internet insults about poetry.
I would drink—except I don’t drink anymore—to Seamus Heaney who knew enough to make his poems as recognizable as plain talk and as mysterious as metaphor-miracles, true mysteries.