WHEN HE READ as part of the 2006 Dublin Writers Festival, Seamus Heaney shared the bill with the relatively unknown (to Irish readers, at least) Dutch poet Rutger Kopland, who passed away last year.
At the time I was Programme Director of the DWF and pleased to have secured the participation of a poet I had long admired and wanted Irish audiences to meet. The endorsement of our Nobel Laureate would no doubt guarantee a capacity audience at the event.
As so often in such matters, Heaney’s generosity on the night went even further when he insisted on playing second fiddle and promoting the visiting poet to headline act.
This kind of generosity many of us in the literary world have come to take almost for granted with Seamus Heaney (though it appears to have been more the exception than the rule in the world of Irish writing before his rise to prominence). At every level, it would seem, Heaney has been an inspiration and exemplar. His death now at the relatively young age of 74 is the loss of both a great writer and of a huge and benevolent force for poetry in an increasingly text-noisy world.
When Heaney, in that early, long-since famous poem ‘Digging’, choses the pen rather than the spade of his ancestors (or indeed the gun of some of his fellow countrymen), he does so not to avoid a challenge but to face that challenge head-on. His life thereafter exemplified the notion of poetry as both craft and vocation, as a way of life that, far from setting the poet apart from his fellow citizens, instead binds him ever closer to them, giving him a chance to share with them what he has called “the learned pleasure” of poetry, just as they in turn share with him the fruits of their own labours.
It is that sense of poetry being part of the world of craft, exchange and communication that appears to have saved Heaney from the torment and self-doubt that plagues so many great poets. Combined with that sense of craft is a conviction of the importance of actual experience, and of the language that goes hand-in-hand with it.
When politicians seek to bamboozle an audience they invariably reach for a largely Latinate or Greek-derived ‘philosophical’ vocabulary; when their hearts are broken, however, or their patience snaps, instinctively they resort to single-syllable words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Heaney, perhaps better than anyone in English-language poetry, had an unfailing sense of the power those relatively simple words can do when handled with care. The point, after all, is not to explain or ornament the world but to re-imagine it and to make that re-imagining accessible.
Sometimes, however, as in any relationship, even a relatively plain-spoken poem will require effort and patience, both on the part of the poet and of the reader. As the poet himself put it, unapologetically: “It is no denigration of a poem to say that it resists its audience for a time.”
This is a far cry from the accusation, leveled against him at the height of The Troubles, that ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ (to use the title of one of his own poems). Horrified by the murder of his own cousin (“with blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes”) and the escalating tribalism and barbarism of the time, in the late 1970s Heaney clearly struggled to understand his role as poet in a time of conflict. His now much celebrated poems on the Danish bog bodies gave him if not distance then a kind of perspective and were a significant step in his maturation as a major poet, not just on an Irish but on the world stage. In a sense, this outward look was continued in his many translations and versions over the following four decades, from Virgil’s Latin, Sophocles’ Greek and the Old English of Beowulf among other texts.
Good poems engage their audience. For the master poet, there is no need to explain, only to describe and trust. In the early poem, ‘Follower’, for instance, in which the poet’s father (as generations before him had done) follows the horse-plough down the field, Heaney writes, “He would set the wing / And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.” Those of us who know a little about ploughing can see immediately the ancient technology in all its worn glory; those who don’t must be drawn in by the apparently simple rhythm of the phrasing, and afterwards held by that wonderful cadence of vowels, so pleasurable to speak aloud that one can only imagine Heaney voicing them over and over to himself before deciding he had them in the right order, like the perfect sequence of stones in a dry-stone wall.
A near perfect collection of lyrics, Heaney’s 1991 Seeing Things is a book whose title suggests both the importance of descriptive powers for a poet and the visionary nature of poetry itself. Among a number of masterpieces, the book includes the poem ‘Markings’ which describes a group of youngsters playing football in fading light, the ball now coming to them “like a dream heaviness”, “their own hard breathing” sounding “like effort in another world”.
The longevity of the poems seems assured: future generations will surely find themselves reflected there as today we find ourselves. Now it is time to acknowledge too the greatness of the man. For long after he might have been expected to slow down (the Nobel and a dozen other major awards behind him, his stroke of 2006 enough to give any public figure pause for thought), Heaney continued to devote himself selflessly to poetry – to encourage and praise, to enable and champion and bless – even when the effort must have been so much more difficult, even after the light began to fade.
(First published in The Sunday Business Post, 01 Sept 2013)