Traveling in Ireland for the first time a few years ago I was struck by the fact that everyone – everywhere – seemed to have a book under their arm or clutched in hand. Everyone it seemed was lost in words, heads in books. Crossing the Shannon on a car ferry the truck driver next to our rental car had a big volume propped up on the steering wheel. He had obviously taken in the lovely scenery before. Now his lovely book had his full attention, if only for a few minutes.
One wonders why Ireland, a country with 4.5 million people, has produced so many of history’s greatest men – yes, mostly men – of letters. Shaw and Joyce, Behan, Beckett and Oscar Wilde. Now another of the greatest – the poet and Nobel Laureate Shamus Heaney – the greatest Irish poet since the great William Butler Yeats is gone.
I’ll leave the pondering of the Irish literary tradition for another day and instead praise Shamus Heaney who was both deep and accessible. You don’t often find the words “best selling” in the same sentence with “poet.” Heaney was the best selling poet in the English language, but also an acclaimed translator and essayist.
Heaney famously advised in his Nobel acceptance speech to “Walk on air against your better judgement.” In one collection in 1984 he offered good advice to writers and readers. “The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night, dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous. Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.”
I wish that when I struggled to read and comprehend Beowulf in school that Heaney’s translation, by most accounts the best ever in English, had been available. The man was more than his poetry, as if that weren’t enough.
As the Irish Times reported today, “Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said the death of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has brought a ‘great sorrow to Ireland’ and only the poet himself could describe the depth of his loss to the nation.” The BBC, giving proper notice to an Irishman, noted in its coverage that Heaney’s international literary impact, like that of Yeats, only grew as his body of work expanded.
“Born in Northern Ireland, he was a Catholic and nationalist who chose to live in the South,” the BBC said. “‘Be advised, my passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen,’ [Heaney] once wrote.”
“He came under pressure to take sides during the 25 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and faced criticism for his perceived ambivalence to republican violence, but he never allowed himself to be co-opted as a spokesman for violent extremism.
“His writing addressed the conflict, however, often seeking to put it in a wider historical context. The poet also penned elegies to friends and acquaintances who died in the violence.
“Describing his reticence to become a ‘spokesman’ for the Troubles, Heaney once said he had ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head.’”
Here’s how Heaney ended his Nobel acceptance speech in 1995, an ode to the power of words – and poetry – to explain and shape the human condition.
“The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”
The late Idaho Supreme Court justice and poet Byron Johnson once said that the country could use more poets and fewer politicians. The passing of Seamus Heaney reminds us of just how accurate that statement remains.