30th August, 2013
Sheamus Heaney died today. He has been variously called "the most important Irish poet since Yeats," and the "greatest poet of our age." He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, an unusual honour for a poet. Not long before that I won a half-scholarship to study with him for a summer in Northern Ireland, but I was young and couldn't muster the other half, and so the opportunity fell away "like a tinsmith's scoop sunk past its gleam in the meal bin."
Heaney talked about "the physicality of words," and like any good poet, his poetry was more than a vehicle for ideas. The images are graphic and dig hard to get under your skin. "All poems," he said, "are born out of infancy." The Latin root infans means unspeaking. "All good poems have been gathered in silence," he said. He is a writer of the land because he is carved and sliced by it - there is no getting away. He wrote about the bog man, and he was the bog man, setting himself layer by layer into a tradition of which perhaps Yeats is the best example, where the imagery is visceral and there is no escaping its traction. It's a dying breed and it died a little more today.
So much depends on a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain, says William Carlos Williams. But I say, so much depends upon "the scone rising to the tick of two clocks."
I love that when Heaney read his poetry it was as one who simply speaks, and there were no airs, no pretentious cadences to his speech. I appreciate that Seamus Heaney spoke out for his country, as I do for mine. He wrote about the Irish Catholic soldiers who were shot down on Vinegar Hill fighting for their land against the English, and his words became a kind of fight and a judgement more searing than was ever handed down by a jury: "The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave/ They buried us without shroud or coffin/ And in August...the barley grew up out of our grave."
It is August again and an unlikely poet, the oldest of nine children raised in poor kitchens by a mother dusted in flour, will be returned to the land his rhythms and rhymes taught us to love. May the soil of Ireland claim him and dissolve him and grind him into dust for another generation of poets. May the barley grow tall above his head. May he forever walk in fields of gold.
Seamus Heaney -- 1939-2013