For most of my grown up life I've known of Seamus Heaney, and for years now have read him and considered him a poet sage. His view of the world was shaped by memory, sharply considered experience, and critical but compassionate attentiveness to human nature. He had a keen eye for beauty and an inner radar finely tuned to detect emotional movements such as longing, sorrow, joy in embryo, and exquisite sensitivity to the chronic human hunger for transcendence frustrated by transience and human finitude.
The death of a poet is attended by its own poignancy; a distinctive voice silenced; visionary eyes closed in unwaking sleep; ripples of words and cadences which have emanated outwards for so long, slowing, finally, to stillness; a way of construing the world which opened the eyes of many to see that world differently, but from now onwards, dependent on the poetry which first gave form and expression to his vision. What we are grateful for, however, is the large ouevre Heaney has left us. And yet the more powerful impetus to gratitude is what we have known of the poet as we read him, his humanity, individuality, and just this; the fact that he lived and found his voice, and spoke to the world, and in doing so spoke into being a richer, more complex world in which the very fact of existence, and the pervasiveness of the ordinary, and the miracle of being, challenged and challenges our superficiality, carelessness and self-absorbtion.
So when I think of Heaney, of course the poems are obvious. But in this post I want to mention Denis O'Driscoll's Stepping Stones. Interviews with Seamus Heaney. Here the poet talks frankly and revealingly about his roots, his role as poet in Irish culture, the ethical and artistic challenges he faced during the nightmare years of the Troubles, his own development as a poet and celebrity representing the highest levels of artistic achievement. And in each of the interviews, chronologically structured around his most significant published collections, Heaney opens his mind and shares from deep places the things that matter to him, the energy sources of human thought and expression. I mark many of my books as I read them, in pencil, and with my own code for easy reference later. Reading this volume again, a kind of tribute and In Memoriam for a favourite poet and fine human being, the phrase from Hebrews is confirmed, 'he being dead yet speaketh.'
Discussing his relationship with Czeslaw Milosz he alluded to the Troubles, and his own aesthetic ambivalence and ethical dilemma as a poet: "Deep down the question about obligation in relation to the Troubles persisted. The old Miloszian challenge was unavoidable: What is poetry that does not save/ Nations or people?" Reading Heaney's prose there is a passionate exposition of poetry as a transformative gift which articulates human experience from anguish to zeal and all else in between, including love and hate, violence and peace, grief and joy, loneliness and community, despair and hope. Poetry is neither pastime nor aesthetic luxury, its true work lies outside the academy, more likely in pubs and public libraries, and intended to change attitudes, dispositions, worldview, moral perception. Poetry sensitises human beings, offers pardigm shifts in consciousness, says in oblique fashion truths we would otherwise refuse to hear.
"Poetry is like the line Christ drew in the sand, it creates a pause in the action, a freeze-frame moment of concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves". I don't know a better explanation of why it's important to read poetry. In relation to the Troubles he goes on to say "a good poem holds as much of the truth as possible in one gaze", and the call to poets in Northern Ireland was "to hold in a single thought reality and justice."
And finally for this post, this, reminiscing about his time as Harvard Professor: "A populace that is chloroformed day and night by TV stations like Fox News could do with inoculation by poetry. Obviously, poetry can't be administered like an injection, but it does constitute a boost to the capacity for discrimination and resistance".
Of course there are many other strands in Heaney's work - but the moral seriousness with which he took his role as, Nobel Laureate, Ireland's foremost poet since Yeats, and as academic celebrity, meant that he wrote out of deep wells, water that is living and life-giving.