Sunday, 1 September 2013

Seamus Heaney: Our Beloved File


'Earth receive an honoured guest...'
Ireland is in mourning. 

Our beloved national poet, our Nobel Laureate, our cherished file Seamus Heaney has died.  

But it's not just our country. No. The whole world knew and loved Seamus Heaney. Whether as a poet, a spokesman for Ireland, or just as an amiable public figure, a man of grace. Yesterday his picture graced the front page of the New York Times and countless other publications throughout the world.  Our own national newspapers have carried tribute upon tribute to this most unique man this weekend. From fellow writers and poets, but also - musicians, actors, politicians, heads of state, heads of church, heads of charities, hospitals, foreign presidents, schoolchildren and old people. Everyone, everywhere, loved him.

For Seamus Heaney was that most rarest of beings: a world-renowned Nobel prize winning poet, a man of letters, with countless awards and honours bestowed on him, but also a warm-hearted man, friendly, witty, down-to-earth (last time I checked all poets didn't pass this muster, the opposite infact). He was a poet's poet but also a poet of the people. His name is known in every Irish household, not just for his poetry, but for who he was, what he contributed to our national identity and spirit and how he did it. 

He not only showed us who we were in his verse, but who we could be. He celebrated us as a nation - our nature, our landscapes, our ordinary lives, our work, our fortitude, our friendliness, our humility, our spirit, our potential, our place in the world. He was a voice of goodness during the dark years of the Troubles, our voice of grace betwixt and between them, our voice on the international stage, our voice of dignity and gravitas.

One commentator noted that everyone in the country must have a Seamus story - from describing a meeting with him or just the influence of a poem of his. We all feel like we knew him, he was that kind of person. Contemporaries have all commented how approachable and helpful a figure he was - always encouraging new writers and never refusing a request for help from a fledgling writer or poet or keen observer or journalist or budding arts facilitator. Heaney was accommodating to everyone who came to his door (often literally), even students. (You have to chuckle at the 'homely' qualities attributed to him, one journalist talked of going to his house for an interview and being told that they would sit down and have a cup of tea and sandwiches first.) 

Ever so down-to-earth was this Nobel winner. The humble farmer's son never lost who he was or where he came from, no matter the amount of accolades or fame granted him.

He was a popular poet, a 'superstar' of a poet. He was by far the best-selling poet in the English language in the world. He brought poetry out of its roost on the higher realms of literature and into households all across the country. Another journalist wrote about going to a reading of his years ago in a school hall in the wilds of rural Ireland, being alerted to the location by a sign stuck in a tree labelled 'Seamus Heaney' with an arrow pointing to the school. People you wouldn't expect to know or like  poetry could be found at a Seamus Henaey reading - why? Because he was the voice of the country, the ambassador of our national spirit, in this case to upturn Shelley's words -  the acknowledged legislator of our world.

I admire Seamus Heaney as much as the next burgeoning writer. He was as good as it got - the master craftsman, the wondrous wordsmith, the ultimate figure to aspire to. My first experience of him -  as with almost everyone -  was studying his now infamous poem about the death of his young brother 'Mid-Term Break', in secondary school. It was a poem that appealed to many - with its raw tender account of Heaney's experience of being called home to the wake of his young brother, something that every Irish person can relate to, '...and big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow...and I was embarrassed/by old men standing up to shake my hand/and tell me they were 'sorry for my trouble'.' There is something so simple yet poignant in its telling, that when you come to the last line, the revealing of who died -  'a four foot box, a foot for every year' - you are touched most deeply. 

In my experience of teaching and tutoring - where poetry is always the most moaned-at component of English by grumbling indifferent teenagers - it was  Seamus Heaney who struck through the indifference. Because he was 'one of our own', students felt they could relate more to him. But it wasn't just that; heck if it was, every kid would love Yeats et al too!  More so because his poems were honest and real and spoke of ordinary things.  Because every student was aware of his celebrity-like status in the country and the awe and respect for him shown in every quarter, whether you were a poetry lover or not. Where there persisted a bland nonchalance to other poetry, Seamus Heaney's poetry was met with respect and automatically taken on board.  

I've much experience of marking student essays on poets and even though some achieve an A grade, you know as a teacher, and as a poetry lover, that most are learned off and very few genuine in their rendering of the effect the poetry had on them. But when Heaney was on the paper, it was one of the rare cases when you did see genuine admiration shine through. Not because he was Irish (lots of Irish poets on the syllabus - including current ones), but because I think, he was such an admirable person in Irish society and touched everyone through his person. He was our 'file' (the Irish for poet) in the oldest truest sense, the member of society who spoke for it, a wise and humble elder who we looked to for guidance, the keeper of the national spirit, dabbling in magic, and held in the highest regard by all its citizens. 

I was so lucky to attend a poetry reading of his just a few years ago. It was a free reading held in the National Gallery in Dublin and I remember being told by the receptionist to 'come early' because it would be 'packed.' Not usually two sentiments you associate with a poetry reading, ahem. Now, I've been to quite a few poetry readings and I can tell you this: they are always serious (sometimes stuffy) affairs. There's a literary snobbishness to poetry events that aficionados don't want to admit, but it is there. And then there's this stereotype that only older people like poetry and attend such events. Well, the Seamus Heaney reading blew these clichés out of the water. The crowd was an ordinary crowd and mostly, young people. Children. Teenagers. Twenty-somethings. As well as middle-aged couples. Grannies and Grandas.  OAPs. Equal gender ratio. All ages.

There was no pomp about the experience - Seamus Heaney shuffled onto the stage with a few tattered copies of his books, all dog-eared, with neon post-its sticking out and reading-glasses in hand. He bade hello to the audience and introduced himself with a half-humorous half-witty preamble he is famous for. He read his poems not as precious entities, but as soft stories, notes from a life lived and loved, as lessons and gifts he was lucky to have had bestowed on him. And in between every one he told a story about it, somehow settling the great mystique of the task of writing poetry into a more everyday occurence. 

But it didn't diminish the effect of the poems: when he read them, everyone listened. Actively. And were captured in the strange alchemy of the moment, a moment suspended from time, a lunchtime where we were all lifted, transported, from the practical routines of existing to the soul-stuff of living, the mattering. Every word was an incantation and testament to the power of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Everyone left the room changed. For a while afterwards, I felt like I was more aware of everything, more attentive to the world. That's what poetry does granted, but it takes a great poet to communicate it to everyone, so effectively and simply, and immediately.

Seamus Heaney brought poetry to the masses. Those who would normally tut and dismiss poetry would stand to attention for Heaney's verses. Through Heaney, they came to know a bit about the power of poetry, the power it has to define a people and instil in those people a sense of belonging, a sense of self, a sense of soul. 

In his Nobel acceptance speech, he spoke of crediting poetry for its "truth to life". He talked of the power of poetry as "the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitides and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being." He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 for 'works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.'

The poems themselves are exquisite creations: perfect in their verbal precision and heart-thumping in subtle meaning. And in Heaney's own words what a poem should be - 'compellingly wise'. I love reading them, but even better is listening to them read aloud for Heaney is highly-skilled at sound-effect (read aloud The Rain-Stick below). It's like the words dissolve on your tongue and from there are absorbed as a tonic into the body, a reinvigorating simultaneous fizzing of language and life. They click and clack together to make something solid and whole, as like the blacksmith's movements in The Forge, producing in the process 'the unpredictable fantail of sparks.' Heaney, in his Nobel acceptance speech, stated that good poems should be surprising and 'retune' the world: "like the impatient thump which unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set, or the electric shock which sets the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm." And that's what his poems do - restore and retune you, not just back to yourself, but to a better self.

The range of his poetry is wide: there are poems that vary from nature lyrics revelling in the beauty of the earth, especially his rural homeland of Co. Derry, to poems lit by reverent memory, poems dedicated to family members and friends, elegies to innocent people murdered in the Troubles, love poems to his wife Marie, poems influenced by classical literature, his extraordinary set of Bog people poems which explore the violence and killing in Northern Ireland in a metaphorical and symbolic language, poems that speak of the spirit's experience on earth, poems that are pure music to the ears, poems that have become forged by our political struggle and provide understanding and hope, like this excerpt from 'The Cure at Troy' immortalised by Bill Clinton in the Northern Ireland peace talks: 

'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.'  

So many poems, so many people touched by them. He was most able - as a line goes in 'Postscript' - to 'catch the heart off guard and blow it open.' 

And now our hearts are hurting at the loss of our graceful and grand spokesperson. 

So many beautiful  tributes have been spoken over the last few days, from all over the world, and it's a measure of the man he was to see these kind glowing words in homage to him:

-Fellow Northern Irish poet Michael Longley consoles us with the thought that: "Just as his presence filled a room, his marvellous poems filled the hearts of generations of readers." -New upcoming Irish writer Belinda McKeon wrote a heartfelt piece about him expressing what we all are feeling:  "He was loved. Beloved. Whether he was met with as a name on a page, or as a voice from a podium, or as a cherished friend or fellow artist, Seamus Heaney moved into the lives of those who encountered him—those countless lives—and he made a difference that will matter forevermore." 
-Bill Clinton remarked that: "Both his stunning work and his life were a gift to the world. His mind, heart, and his uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace.
-Irish Times journalist Fintan O'Toole commented that although we have lost a great man, we can never lose our great poet, who he describes as "an alchemist" - "He turned our disgrace into grace, our petty hatreds into epic generosity, our dull clichés into questioning eloquence, the leaden metal of brutal inevitability into the gold of pure possibility." Yes, his poetry will always be with us, those 'diamond absolutes' guiding the way.
-But I think Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson sums it up most perfectly when he said:  "With Seamus Heaney’s passing, Ireland, and Northern Ireland especially, has lost a part of its artistic soul. He crafted, through his poetry, who we are as a species and the living soil that we toiled in. By doing so, he defined our place in the universe. May he rest in peace." 

That's it exactly, we have lost a part of our artistic soul. The world of literature is in mourning. The country is in mourning. Many of us feel a personal loss and are in mourning. Not to mention Seamus' family who were so dear to him. There's a 'sunlit absence' now where Seamus Heaney would've been. 
Tomorrow he will be buried in his native Derry and the man who was a living embodiment of poetry, a  reverent man who inspired reverence worldwide, will be laid to rest, "a seeker of what is deepest in our common humanity" - the Archbishop of Dublin commented this evening.  Rest in peace file na hÉireann. We your people, and the world, salute you for your service to humanity. 

~ Siobhán

Photo: Love this portrait.

*I am posting Seamus Heaney poems all week on my blog Poem A Day, beginning today. 
 But for now, here are a few selections of my favourites. Feel free to share yours.

'Had I Not Been Awake'

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,  
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:  
Had I not been awake, I would have missed it,

It came and went so unexpectedly  
And almost it seemed dangerously,  
Returning like an animal to the house,

A courier blast that there and then  
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever  
After. And not now.

from Human Chain (2010)

The Rain-Stick

Up-end the stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
The glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Up-end the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, and thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again. 

from The Spirit Level (1996)


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

from The Spirit Level (1996) 


It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends'
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigre, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet's pulsing rose. 

from North (1975) 


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 gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

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.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

from Death of a Naturalist (1966)


  1. Ah... beautifully expressed. I count myself as so fortunate to have heard Seamus Heaney read in Boyle, in Bantry, in Gortahork and in Armagh, and each time, it was like a fresh hearing of all the poems. It was never a "performance" rehearsed. His words of introduction came in the moment, and this was part of what made it feel like he was really communicating something with each individual in the audience. Treasured memories.

    1. Thank you Imelda for taking the time to comment :)

      You are so lucky getting to see him read not once but four times! Yes, that's it exactly, he never gave a 'performance' - the reciting of poetry came so casually and naturally from him, it put a whole new slant on it. I was so sorry I didn't get to see him in the Millennium a few weeks back, it was sold out, as per expected!

  2. Thank you for posting this. I seek and find great peace and comfort when I read his poetry. I understand the world :)

  3. And thank you very much for your kind comment! Yes, that's it exactly. A gift, it is. :)


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