Editor’s Blog – thoughts on art, life and everything

In memory and celebration: Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney died on August 30th this year at the age of 74 after a short illness – he had taken a fall outside a Dublin restaurant. Physically he had been weaker since a stroke in 2006, but his last collection Human Chain (2010) showed no dimmunition in his powers of sensitivity and reflection. It was described by Ruth Pardell, poet and judge of the Forward Prize, as ‘a collection of painful, honest and delicately weighted poems… a wonderful and humane achievement’ (Human Chain was the first of his collections to win that prize – perhaps the only major poetry award he had not so far received.)

His previous collection District and Circle (2006) likewise contained several intensely moving poems with an elegiac mood. It was characteristic of the man, loved by so many – poets, writers and millions of others around the world – to have been preparing us, and himself, for his expected departure, with down to earth images of both mortality and on going life.

For example in ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ the poet finds the bird:

On the grass when I arrive,

Filling the stillness with life,

But ready to scare off

At the very first wrong move.

In the ivy when I leave.

It’s you, Blackbird, I love.

And this reminds him of the little brother lost in a traffic accident when he was only just out of the nest himself:

And I think of one gone to him,

A little stillness dancer –

Haunter-son, lost brother –

Cavorting through the yard,

So glad to see me home,

My homesick first term over.

But although the blackbird portended death to neighbours who were sensetive to such things ‘I’ve never liked yon bird’ , for the poet he is both sentinel of death and emissary of life. The poem closes:

Hedge-hop, I am absolute

For you, your ready talkback,

Your each stand-offish comeback,

Your picky, nervy goldbeak –

On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.

A blackbird, hopping on the grass, then half-hidden in the ivy ­– two very homely images. There would be few in the northern hemisphere at least to whom they would not be instantly recognisable. And yet from them has been crafted both a celebration of the life force and an elegy for all that may be lost. What other poet of the 20th century could have done such a thing? We have lost a writer and a man who is irreplaceable. In the late summer the newspapers were filled with stories of his acts of generosity towards fellow poets and his untiring service to literature in general.

Many remarked on how fame had not touched him, how he remained to the end exceptionally approachable, gregarious, courteous and convivial, but never crude in his speech. As Colm Toibin remarked ‘he preferred shadow to light; the half-said, careful, ambiguous remark to the big statement, he liked the slow smile rather than the easy laugh.’

Similar qualities, of course, could be discovered in the poetry. He leaves a body of work which, while deeply rooted in particular places and times, especially the rural County Derry of his childhood, seemed to speak a universal language. His was a language of loved things and loved places, and indeed of a deep amour with language itself. Who can forget her, once they have read of the ‘girl from Derry garve’? The lyric, in truth, is a love poem to the name of her home, the way its two syllables fall and slide off the tongue:

And the name, a lost potent mask,

Recalled the river’s long swerve,

A kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk

This land of slow, winding rivers and endless mossy bogs, was, of course, also a land divided.  In his Nobel address Heaney talked of the poet’s struggle in the face of history, and provided a clue as to how he himself engaged with the schisms and violence of his homeland: ‘What will always be to poetry’s credit is the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it.’ In all of his work, poetry, translations and the rich collection  of lectures and essays that he leaves behind, Heaney was always a poet of the ‘rightness’ that is to be found in this world. In his very best poems he puts the endstop firmly there, yet simultaneously opens up a sense that ‘this world’ is in truth unlimited. This is from ‘Squarings’ in the collection  Seeing Things:

And after the commanded journey, what?

Nothing magnificent, nothing unknown.

A gazing out from far away, alone.

And it is not particular at all,

Just old truth dawning: there is no next time round.

Un-roofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.

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