Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Tribute: Seamus Justin Heaney

Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Tullik, a frequent commenter here, broke the news to me Friday last that Seamus Heaney had died. I asked Tullik to write a tribute to the Irish poet as they share a birthplace and a love of literature.

Seamus Justin Heaney
13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013

While I never met Seamus Heaney nor attended one of his readings I felt as if I have always known him, the wise big brother who knew the unknowable. His writings were a comfort and the sudden realisation of the loss of such a voice was unsettling.

His early poetry reflected peace amid "The Troubles" in his home Province of Ulster which saw internecine carnage on a wide level. His pen was a peaceful counter voice to the madness of what he considered a "tribal conflict".

He willingly assumed the role of Poet in the Bardic tradition as one who has a unique voice, who retains an archaic force, who can relate to that secret space in all of us that awaits a certain word, a rhyme, a tone, a metre which awakens that unfathomable something within us, which produces excitement, recognition and peace.

His poetry, translations, writings and lectures garnered him accolades from the greatest seats of learning, with appointments at both Harvard and Oxford, ultimately joining his fellow Irish writers - Yeats, Beckett and Shaw - as a Nobel Laureate.

One of my favourite poems is "St Kevin and the Blackbird" in which he whimsically but esoterically reflects on Kevin’s reaction, or non-reaction to a blackbird nesting in his palm. It is Celtic mythology at its best.

His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

He was a poet of memory (not just his memory but our collective memory), a transporting from what is local to what is universal. His work is not simple; it asks for re-visitation and with repeated readings we grow with it, the rewards are great, as we discover its simplicity. One of those memory poems is "Digging" in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. It recalls watching his father digging potatoes and his grandfather digging turf. The final lines seem to reflect his forged destiny, an artistic and personal manifesto:

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.

At his funeral Mass on Monday his son Michael shared his father’s last words …"don't be afraid". While we may control our fears presently we can’t control our feelings of sadness and loss. 

Seamus, you were a modest unassuming man so please forgive me for asking a question on behalf of so many: 

"But who will be our poet now?"