At a Time When Poetry Was Forbidden, Seamus Heaney Was a Lifeline

Seamus Heaney in 1970. Heaney, Ireland's foremost poet who won the Nobel literature prize in 1995, has died after a half-century exploring the wild beauty and political torment of Ireland. He was 74. Heaney's family and publisher, Faber & Faber, say in a statement that Heaney died Friday in a Dublin hospital. (AP Photo / PA file)

Seamus Heaney in 1970. Heaney, Ireland’s foremost poet who won the Nobel literature prize in 1995, has died after a half-century exploring the wild beauty and political torment of Ireland. He was 74. Heaney’s family and publisher, Faber & Faber, say in a statement that Heaney died Friday in a Dublin hospital. (AP Photo / PA file)

We lost one of our greatest poets this week—Irish writer Seamus Heaney. The news of the Nobel Laureate’s death at the age of 74 came as a shock to the literary community, particularly to readers like myself, who considered each new Heaney publication an event to be savored. It’s hard to believe that we’ll have no more Heaney books to look forward to.

I have written about Heaney’s significance in my own life in a previous Sunday Poem feature:

I scored a copy of his book Poems: 1965-1975 when I was a teenager. The collection is a compilation of Heaney’s earliest books, Death of a NaturalistDoor into the DarkWintering Out, and North. Along with the collected poems of T.S. Eliot, Heaney’s book was a volume I turned to again and again in my youth.

By that point, I had read my share of classic poetry in school. The conservative religious school I attended was particularly fond of 17th and 18th century poets like Alexander Pope, Edward Taylor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Anne Bradstreet. (We skirted right past Byron and Shelley for obvious reasons—they were considered too racy for the eyes of good boys and girls).

Until college, I had never been exposed to contemporary poetry in school. In fact, I don’t think we ever covered 20th century literature in our English classes. The 19th century was fraught enough. (There was Walt Whitman’s homosexuality and those seemingly benign, but dangerous, transcendentalists to contend with). 20th century literature brought further complications for my teachers—religious doubt, the breakdown of traditional hierarchies, plus radical, new poetic forms. It was easier to avoid such topics entirely.

At a time when I was drowning in heroic couplets, ballads, and Christian allegories, Heaney and Eliot were lifelines in my education. They were my introduction to contemporary poetry. Eventually I would discover poets like William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, and Robert Creeley, but Heaney was an essential lynchpin. Heaney taught me that any type of life experience, including that of a farmer’s son in rural Ireland, is fodder for the writer.

Our favorite writers are like members of our family—they are voices that transcend time, place, and blood. Poems, essays, and stories allow us access to a consciousness outside of our small existence (and “smallness” comes in many forms).

You can hear Heaney read “Digging,” the first poem in Heaney’s first book Death of a Naturalist, in my previous Sunday Poem post. “Digging” is a fine example of Heaney’s ability to evoke the gritty toil of his rural upbringing.

Also today, in honor of Heaney, I’m sharing his poem “Death of a Naturalist” and this PBS NewsHour interview with Heaney, which explores the poet’s last book, Human Chain. I’m including my own favorite Seamus Heaney books, as well (purchases made through the Gwarlingo Amazon store, benefit the site).

As novelist Colm Tóibín writes in The Guardianfor Heaney’s readers, “his books were events in our lives, monuments. All of us remember reading the poems in North, say, for the first time in 1975, or reading the Glanmore sonnets which appeared in his book Field Work in 1979. He was not merely a central figure in the literary life of Ireland, but in its emotional life, in its dream life, in its real life.” He will be missed.







All poems © Seamus Heaney courtesy Faber and Faber. Video courtesy of PBS NewsHour.

By | 2016-11-11T21:49:50+00:00 09.01.13|News, The Sunday Poem, Words|1 Comment

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

One Comment

  1. Joan Murray September 6, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Thanks for your copious and loving tribute to our hero, Seamus Heaney.

    For the likes of him, let me raise two parting glasses. One from Heaney’s translation, Beowulf:

    “Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
    chieftain’s sons, champions in battle,
    all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
    mourning his loss as a man and a king.
    They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
    and gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
    for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
    and cherish his memory….”

    And the other from Heaney’s creation/translation Sweeney Astray:

    “—The man who is buried here was cherished indeed, said Moling. How happy we were when we walked and talked along this path. And how I lived to watch him yonder at the well. It is called the Madman’s Well because he would often eat its watercress and drink its water, and so it is named after him. And every other place he used to haunt will be cherished, too.”

    (Both are © Seamus Heaney, published by FSG)

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