Poet of the ‘silent things’ falls silent

Rockstar poet

He was a snowy-haired, craggy mountain of a man; a poet, among the greatest of our era. This obituary of the genius whose death leaves ‘a breach in the language itself’ appeared in The New York Times.

Seamus Heaney, Irish Nobel Laureate

1939 - 2013

Seamus Heaney, the 1995 Nobel laureate in literature, who was often called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died in Dublin las month, aged 74. His publisher, Faber & Faber, announced the death. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon, a long time friend, said that Mr Heaney was hospitalised after a fall on August 29. Mr Heaney had suffered a stroke in 2006.

In an address, President Michael Higgins of Ireland, himself a poet, praised Mr Heaney’s "contribution to the republics of letters, conscience and humanity". Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, said that Mr Heaney’s death had brought "great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature".

A Roman Catholic native of Northern Ireland, Mr Heaney was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition. The author of more than a dozen collections of poetry, as well as critical essays and works for the stage, he repeatedly explored the strife and uncertainties that have afflicted his homeland, while managing simultaneously to steer clear of polemic.

Mr Heaney (pronounced HEE-nee), who had made his home in Dublin since the 1970s, was known to a wide public for the profuse white hair and stentorian voice that befit his calling. He held lectureships at some of the world’s foremost universities, including Harvard, where, starting in the 1980s, he taught regularly for many years; Oxford; and the University of California, Berkeley.

As the trade magazine Publishers Weekly observed in 1995, Mr Heaney "has an aura, if not a star power, shared by few contemporary poets, emanating as much from his leonine features and unpompous sense of civic responsibility as from the immediate accessibility of his lines".

Throughout his work, Mr Heaney was consumed with morality. In his hands, a peat bog is not merely an emblematic feature of the Irish landscape; it is also a spiritual quagmire, evoking the deep ethical conundrums that have long pervaded the place. "Yeats, despite being quite well known, despite his public role, actually didn’t have anything like the celebrity or, frankly, the ability to touch the people in the way that Seamus did,” Mr. Muldoon, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the poetry editor at The New Yorker, said in an interview on Friday. “It was almost like he was indistinguishable from the country. He was like a rock star who also happened to be a poet.”

Mr Heaney was enraptured, as he once put it, by "words as bearers of history and mystery". His poetry, which had an epiphanic quality, was suffused with references to pre-Christian myth — Celtic, of course, but also that of ancient Greece. His style, linguistically dazzling, was nonetheless lacking in the obscurity that can attend poetic pyrotechnics.

At its best, Mr Heaney’s work had both a meditative lyricism and an airy velocity. His lines could embody a dark, marshy melancholy, but as often as not they also communicated the wild onrushing joy of being alive. The result — work that was finely wrought yet notably straightforward — made Mr Heaney one of the most widely read poets in the world.

Reviewing Mr Heaney’s collection North in The New York Review of Books in 1976, the Irish poet Richard Murphy wrote: "His original power, which even the sternest critics bow to with respect, is that he can give you the feeling as you read his poems that you are actually doing what they describe. His words not only mean what they say, they sound like their meaning."

Mr Heaney made his reputation with his debut volume, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. In ‘Digging,’ a poem from the collection, he explored the earthy roots of his art:

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.

Though Mr Heaney’s poems often have pastoral settings, dewy rural romanticism is notably absent: instead, he depicts country life in all its harsh daily reality. His poem ‘A Drink of Water’ opens this way:

She came every morning to draw water

Like an old bat staggering up the field:

The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter

And slow diminuendo as it filled,

Announced her. I recall

Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel

Of the brimming bucket, and the treble

Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.

Mr Heaney was deeply self-identified as Irish, and much of his work overtly concerned the Troubles, as the long, violent sectarian conflict in late-20th-century Northern Ireland is known. But though he condemned British dominion in his homeland (he wrote: ‘Be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen’), Mr. Heaney refused to disown British tradition — and especially British literature — altogether. The writers who influenced him deeply, he said, included not only the Irishmen William Butler Yeats and James Joyce but also the Englishman Thomas Hardy…

Full obituary in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/31/arts/seamus-heaney-acclaimed-irish-poet-dies-at-74.html?ref=opinion

Obituary in The Guardian:  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/30/seamus-heaney-death-breach-language

Obituary in The Irish Times: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/tributes-paid-to-keeper-of-language-seamus-heaney-1.1510607

Obituary on Slate: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/08/30/seamus_heaney_died_irish_poet_nobel_laureate_earthy_genius_of_verse.html

Obituary on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23898891

‘Was Seamus Heaney a Catholic poet?’: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2013/09/was-seamus-heaney-a-catholic-poet/

Wikipedia on Seamus Heaney: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seamus_Heaney

An appreciation in The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/postscript-seamus-heaney-1939-2013.html

Opinion piece in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/31/opinion/seamus-heaney-poet-of-the-silent-things.html?_r=0

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