It is hard to know what to write today. Yesterday morning, at school, getting ready to discuss two of Anne Bradstreet’s poems with my American Literature students, I learned that Seamus Heaney had died. What I know today is this: my poetry heart is breaking.
And I am not alone. Irish Prime Minister, their Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said: “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people.” His death brings “…a great sorrow to Ireland.” Indeed. And not just to Ireland but to people who love poetry everywhere. Seamus Heaney was widely regarded as one of the finest poets of our time. No question. He was also considered a most humble and decent man. He was married, a father and a grandfather. His personal life was stable and not flashy.
He wrote of the Irish people who worked the land, the Irish people who suffered British oppression. He did this in such a way that honored the people, the land, and at times shamed the British. But he did not fall into a polemic. He refused to glorify the Irish Republican Army. He might have supported their goals but he opposed many of their methods. He resisted labeling sides as simply good vs. evil. He knew more complexity than that.
He was born in a small village called Bellaghy, County Derry, in the North of Ireland, the oldest of nine children. His family were farmers for generations. He won a scholarship to St. Columb’s College and then to Queen’s University, Belfast. For many years he lived half the year in Dublin and half the year in the United States, at Harvard. His writing received many honors, including the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature. His first book, The Death of the Naturalist, received strong acclaim back in 1966. He kept writing and never looked back.
For many years, Seamus Heaney’s poems have served as a touchstone for me. I first fell in love with his books The Spirit Level, District and Circle, and Station Island. Later I found individual poems that comforted, challenged, and moved me. His poem “In The Republic of Conscience” claims a place for the political poet, the poet who cannot escape his or her responsibility to better the world. In that poem he writes that in the “Republic of Conscience” —
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
Seamus Heaney’s intimate and personal poems also live deeply in me. His poem “Follower,” about watching his father plow a field, riding on his father’s shoulder as he did so, then finding later in life that his father “follows” him, breaks my heart when I read it. It takes me to back into the circle of my own father’s love. In that poem’s opening stanza, he describes how he, a small boy, saw his father’s large shoulders:
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
In “Digging,” he honors Irish farmers, his father and grandfather, describing them working the fields, especially planting potatoes, the crop whose failure, along with British brutality, nearly crushed the Irish people in 1845-47. He sees his own life moving from shovel to pen– he will not be the farmer his ancestors were. He will use the pen– the difficulty and sacrifice that sometimes come when one realizes and accepts a vocation:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
He goes on to admit:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
I always especially loved his poem “Lovers on Aran” imagining the embrace of the sea and rock on the Aran Islands, off Ireland’s west coast. The last stanza is a gem:
Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.
In his epic poem “The Cure at Troy,” he explores a Sophocles poem and writes a stanza which has moved many people exploring the idea of social or political poetry. His words here have saved me from hopelessness on several occasions:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
Imagine– that “hope and history” might one day rhyme. Imagine that one day our longings for the good of the earth can be realized in history. Today, as our country considers a military strike on Syria– which has recently gassed part of its capital city, killing over 400 children, we stand in dire need of hope. And the possibility of hope and history “rhyming” feels nearly impossible. We need the hope though– especially “On this side of the grave…”
I recall W. H. Auden’s words in his elegy for another great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. At one point Auden writes: “Earth, receive an honored guest…” That is how I feel today. We have been honored with the great gift of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. Now, the earth receives him.
Photo Credit: New York Times