Friday, September 20, 2013

For Seamus Heaney

                 When Seamus Heaney, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died on August 30th, I was struck by the loss of this humble, approachable man. I had met him only once, at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland, in 2003, when he was signing some copies of his books. He had a warm, engaging smile; a most amiable manner; and the rumpled look of a farmer. At home with heads of state, academics, and common people alike, Heaney was the recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, and, I think, our greatest living poet. The world that he had so illuminated in his verse is a little darker now without his voice.

                  From my first trip to Ireland in 1969, when Heaney’s native Northern Ireland was plunged into the sectarian violence that would seethe and detonate for three decades, I was captivated by the storied Irish landscape that transcended any political borders of the past century. The fields and ditches, the bogs and mountains of Heaney’s County Derry in Northern Ireland bore the same prehistoric stone monuments, the same ancient past as those of Counties Cavan, Sligo, and Donegal in the Republic of Ireland to the south that I would come to explore over the next forty years. Heaney, too, recognized that common ground in his poetry, often writing as if excavating both a personal and a cultural past.
                   In the turmoil that would come to be known as “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, the minority Catholic nationalists demanded equal rights and the unification of the six counties of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, while the majority Protestant unionists fought to sustain both their allegiance to Great Britain and their privileged status. Reflecting the tension of that conflict, Heaney chose to raise his family in the Wicklow hills outside Dublin in the Republic. As his poetry reflects, his identity is often Irish rather than British. In fact, Heaney once objected to being included in a book of British poets with these lines:

                                    Be advised my passport’s green.
                                    No glass of ours was ever raised 
                                    To toast the Queen.

                  Heaney’s nationalist sympathies were rooted in the discrimination he knew first-hand growing up in Northern Ireland, where the minority was long denied equality in voting, housing, and employment. His poems sometimes spoke of  “the troubles” in a historical or cultural context, but by 1975, three years after British soldiers fired into a crowd of civil rights protesters in what would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” Heaney’s poetry became more politicized. Yet he resolutely avoided becoming a spokesman for nationalist violence.

                  In his first published volume, in1966, when the long-simmering hatreds in the North were festering, his poem “Digging” had set the tone for his life’s work:

            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.

                 It is no accident that Heaney opens this early poem with the image of his pen “snug as a gun.” Raised on a farm in the North, he was the first of his family to attend university. In poetry he finds an alternative to the agricultural labors of his ancestors, but as we come to see, he also rejects the violence that will scar his land for decades. In the end, there is no more mention of a gun.

                 In rejecting farming, however, Heaney also finds a dignity in it as nature imagery—the imagery of the land—pervades much of his poetry. The image of cutting “Through living roots” on the bog becomes a metaphor for all searches for our ancestral pasts. And his more literal image of digging for “the good turf” brings me back at once to a summer morning in Ireland in 1972, when I had gone up to the bog with my wife’s family to bring home the turf. With his reference to “. . . the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat . . . ,” Heaney captures precisely the sound and texture of cutting deep into the turf with a spade and slicing out a dripping sod the size of a loaf of white bread, then flinging it up to be stacked and dried in the sun. In a week or so, the turf—shrunken to a little larger than a brick—would be brought down the mountain to warm the fires of the home for the next year.
                  That is the power of Heaney’s poetry: its crisp, precise images; its accessible language; its affinity with the natural world and the ancestral past. And its ability to capture for all time a moment worth remembering. Seamus Heaney once wrote, “. . . I rhyme/To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” It seems now that with his death, he has “set the darkness echoing” for all time.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely tribute to our poet, Thomas. That idea of him excavating both a personal and cultural past to clear a path to what matters is so powerful, isn't it? Digging and delving always and finding the thing that remains forever for those he left behind.
    Thank you