Remembering Seamus Heaney, the Poet of Loss

Every year the rumblings of back-room intrigues and rumors heard or invented behind closed doors rise like a timely if somewhat intimidating tide in the weeks and months leading up to October, when the Swedish academy gets together to announce the winner of the Nobel Prize.

Politics and partisan-like allegiances have played a role in determining at least the literary recipient of the preeminent award in the cultural establishment of the West for so long that it’s hard to remember when it wasn’t so. Perhaps that’s why successful or prominent writers, such as Bret Easton-Ellis, have not been shy to dub the prize “a joke” in recent times. Or maybe that was because he’d never get a look in.


Either way, back in 1995 when Irish poet Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature the choice was certainly helped, if not necessarily dictated, by the context of the long violent conflict between Northern Ireland and England, by President Bill Clinton’s determination to help broker a lasting peace agreement, and by the precarious ceasefire that for roughly one year had heralded the first period of tolerant coexistence in close to 30 years. Heaney, like any other person in either side of Ireland, had an opinion about the war, and had expressed it publicly. The unfortunate consequence for his legacy as an artist is that, outside of Britain, he has developed an image of a political poet, an advocate of peace as well as a supporter of the republican faction—a committed war poet, almost.

Committed he was, of course, and a republican as well. But Heaney, who passed away at the age of 74 last August, was not a writer who dwelled unnecessarily or even excessively on conflict. His first collection of poems, Death of a Naturalist (1966), is a rather introspective book that delves extensively into the land of memory, almost expressly and deliberately in line with Wordsworth’s “recollection in tranquility.” It is a work punctuated by nostalgia in which loss plays a significant role, adopting different forms: fond reminiscences of childhood innocence convey the magic of those early days, inevitably and necessarily bygone; his family’s farming tradition collides head on with his ability (or lack thereof) as well as his temperament: in the opening poem of the collection, “Digging,” Heaney recalls the sound of his father’s spade sinking in the gravelly ground, “By God, the old man could handle a spade / Just like his old man.” But Heaney is not fit to dig like his forefathers—those days are also gone—holding, instead, between his finger and his thumb, a pen “snug as a gun;” perhaps most strikingly, almost prophetic, is the poem “Mid-Term Break,” from the same collection, in which he describes the shock and infinite sadness, but also the confusion in his infant mind, produced by the death of his four-year-old brother, killed in a traffic accident.

Heaney’s poetry is profoundly emotional, and perhaps his greatest accomplishment is reaching the kernel of evocation without falling into the corny turn of sentimentalism. In his 1969 collection Turn in the Dark he takes to driving around the peninsula for inspiration: “The sky is tall as over a runway / The land without marks, so you will not arrive / But pass through, though always skirting landfall.” Heaney’s poetic journey aims to highlight the feelings that accompany us as we make our way through life. Indeed, for Heaney it might well be that life itself is nothing other than those feelings that overcome us on a constant basis, the most fundamentally human reaction to the circumstances we face daily. It is undoubtedly in the details that Heaney finds the salt of the earth: small, often mundane details, such as the accents of Anahorish, for instance, where he went to school as a child, or the sound of the rain falling on dry land. Details, many of them, taken from the rural landscape of his beloved Ireland—a land that, from the beginning, feels distant, threatened, not by technology, civilization, or even war, but perhaps simply by time.

From 1975, with the publication of his collections Stations and North, Heaney’s poetry is clearly permeated by the war. Escalation in the Troubles in previous years had affected all strands of life, and so much is evident in his poems. Perhaps inevitably, the tone of his production becomes more political, although this should not be taken as a radical change in his approach to poetry. It must have been impossible to live in Ireland through the ’70s and ’80s without taking sides in the conflict. But Heaney, while sympathetic to the republican cause (he claimed no religious affiliation, although his Catholic education certainly influenced his writing) fell short, well short, of radicalizing his stance. A good example of the progression in his position is his poem “Funeral Rites,” included in North, where he describes the funeral procession of “dead relations.” While his early “Mid-Term Break” explored the desolation, confusion and sadness triggered by a tragic accident, “Funeral Rites” is deeply laden with a sense of responsibility, of sadness, of course, but also of anger at the injustice of “unavenged” violence.

Loss, time and responsibility stand out as the substance of Heaney’s early work but his poetry is also crowded with references. In many cases these are literary, but often they are historical and, consequently, political: in Door into the Dark (1972) overt allusion is made to the rebellion of 1798; in “Trial Runs” (Stations, 1975) there’s mention of 1690, the year of the Battle of the Boyne; and, perhaps most notoriously, his poem “Act of Union” depicts the 1800 treatise that ultimately joined the fates of the kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain as a mating couple where Great Britain is the imperial male who takes the female Ireland from behind, leaving her in pain and pregnant with the sprout of “an obstinate fifth column” that will seek independence at all costs.

Heaney in 1970 (

Nevertheless, even through the years of greatest turmoil and violence, Heaney remains faithful to his introspective poetry, to the point where the most vivid images of this period actually correspond to his paradoxical relation with the conflict: “I moved like a double agent among the big concepts” he says in “England’s Difficulty” (Stations, 1975), while “Whatever You Say Say Nothing” (North) is every bit as elusive as the title implies. Because ultimately Heaney feels that he is “neither internee nor informer; / An inner émigré, grown long-haired / And thoughtful; a wood-kerne / Escaped from the massacre.”

Escape Heaney would, of course, and his poetry would bear witness to this displacement. In 1979 he would join Harvard University as a visiting professor, a connection he would foster until well into the ’90s. Perhaps his most celebrated collection after Death of a Naturalist came that same year, 1979, in the shape of Field Work, an eclectic book that combines the fierce consequences of violence (“Casualties”) with his fondness for poetic structure (“Glanmore Sonnets”), his indelible affection for the Irish countryside and a tendency to favor elegiac poems, which in the end are not so different from his early recollections of his childhood. Heaney’s subsequent collections, Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987) and Seeing Things (1991) adopt a more cosmopolitan tone, often revisiting Ireland as a tourist guide and toning down or dropping altogether the overtly political content of his earlier production.

As the world (and fame) widens for the provincial boy from county Derry, so does the scope of his poetry, but at its core his almost childish fascination for the ordinary remains intact. His production does not dwindle, either, after winning the Nobel in 1995, with The Spirit Level (1996), Electric Light (2001) and District and Circle (2006), a title that makes allusion to the subway lines targeted during the London bombings of 2005. Finally, after suffering a stroke in 2009, he publishes Human Chain (2010) which deals with his impoverished physical condition.

In his later work Heaney writes extensively about love, about his often turbulent relationship with his wife Marie, about his children and passing the baton to the young generations; he becomes more and more of an elegiac poet and often delves deep into classical and archaic traditions to come up with translations or versions of works. Electric Light might be the most comprehensive example of his combined interests, with powerful and direct reminiscences of his homeland and childhood, the odd translation and a series of elegies.

In a sense loss is the pivotal concept in his poetry, but such loss is tackled with a positive attitude. Heaney recognizes that there is nothing we can do against the course of life, of history, against the passing of time, Hence, there is almost a total absence of regret in his nostalgia, which is instead informed with an element of gratitude, with the satisfaction of having enjoyed the days past, of enjoying them still. Indeed, that enjoyment, that recognition, is perhaps a duty for Heaney. That is why the pen he holds in “Digging” is compared to a gun—not as an instrument of intimidation or retaliation but rather as a tool of empowerment fit to his talent and to the times: he might not be able, physically, literally, to dig like his forefathers, but he is obliged to dig, one way or another. In this respect, we could use the final lines of that poem as a maxim for life, replacing the pen with any tool relevant to ourselves: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” Let’s dig on.

Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday February 8, 2014.

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