Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A Noble Life: Seamus Heaney

by Gary Berg-Cross

I was sad to read that Seamus Heaney died in Dublin in late August at the age of 74. The passing of Ireland's greatest living writer and its first Nobel prize-winning poet since Yeats is a loss to us all. He was an author of 13 collections of poetry, 4 books of criticism, two plays, and numerous translations (the highly acclaimed Beowulf in 2000 which was my first purchase), lectures, and other writings. Some of us learned of, Heaney when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. 

You can see & hear his modest Nobel Lecture online. Known is the UK as “Seamus Famous“ he was a multi-talented writer-translator- professor-broadcaster. According to one source in 2007, his books accounted for 2/3rds of the poetry sales in the UK. Why?  He was a clear, but hard edged, Humanist voice. His was a Shakespeare-like mind that could creatively shape language to purposeful use. Like “stoked up, stiff as a broom” from his early poem Lint Water.

His themes often drew from his father’s generation of farm life but he could re-frame even earlier classics, such as Dante’s Inferno, to provide historical and cultural continuity to current times.

With his death many have spoken out on his impact. Irish American Joe Biden put it this way quoting from a Heaney poem on the Irish problem:

 "…. Heaney taught us that 'once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme'. We have been lucky in our lifetimes to see that tidal wave of justice rise and to find our hopes reflected in historic moments of opportunity. But most of all, we were lucky to have a poet with the grace of Seamus Heaney, whose simple, honest wisdom could help us better understand ourselves and the world we inhabit. I am sorry that we lost him, but grateful that his words will live on."


Seamus was beloved locally because he could paint an Irish landscape in words.  In  The Forge he hammers us with action words to give us a clear picture of the life of a blacksmith he knew as a child and adult. We see a creative, joyful process at seemingly simple action.  But the totality of grunting skill forges simple metals into refined art and useful tools.

From http://poetry.rapgenius.com/Seamus-heaney-the-forge-lyrics#note-1282225

You can see him reciting his short, early-years, froggy image-poem Death of a Naturalist' recorded by PBS. This is simple, lyrical nature poetry, romantically brooding over the then disappearing unspoiled world of rural Ireland. Of course it may be metaphoric for the relatively unspoiled world of politics preceding the Troubles. Some see the later works North (1975), Field Work(1979), and The Haw Lantern (1987), as Heaney attempted to grapple very personally with Ireland's bloody troubles. His early Catholicism evolved into a more secular voice in his mature years.

An even shorter poem recalling a departed person “When all the others were away at Mass.” And if that wets your appetite you can see more here.



From “Seamus Heaney reads his poems on video – which is your favourite?”



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