by R.T. Smith
Writer-in-Residence and Editor of Shenandoah
Washington and Lee University
(This piece appeared first in The Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sept. 7, 2013, and is reprinted here with permission.)
The morning I learned from the radio that Seamus Heaney had died, I was driving through fog on a snaky Blue Ridge road, and I had to pull onto the shoulder to catch my breath. Heaney has been for me over three decades one reliable touchstone in the whole community of contemporary poets, the one I could always count on for sustenance and stimulation.
From the early poems steeped in nature and rural life to the meditations on mortality in "Human Chain" (2010), Heaney "expend himself in shape and music," as he wrote in the sixties of the blacksmith in "The Forge."
He was a brilliant and generous man whose poetry is visual, visceral, ethical and spiritual, whose imagination ranged from the historical to the mythic and anthropological but who was unafraid of the immediate tragedies — a boy killed in a motoring accident, a girl driven to kill her illegitimate child, a neighbor killed by shrapnel on the edges of a bomb blast.
He saw the eternal in the local, as well as the reverse, and he had the great gift of being earthy and worldly at once. If his ethical and rhetorical models included Sophocles, Dante, Yeats and the "Beowulf" poet, his eye was ever-trained on the immediate and solid, the contoured and tactile and practical — a tinsmith's meal scoop, a spade, turf and thatch and the whirring spokes of a bicycle — all of them collected and deployed in consequential fashion.
I heard Heaney read and speak often and met him a few times, mostly in the west of Ireland, where we once toasted our mutual birthdate of April 13, but I was always initially intimidated — call it "starstruck" — by his quickness and gravity, yet soon was simply spellbound again by Heaney’s zest and grace, the intrepid leaps of his mind. Not to mention his obvious delight in company and conversation. I’ll never forget him saying, after a quick drink in a Sligo pub, "You’ll have another, so." When I objected that I shouldn't, as I was driving, he gave me that great joyous smile and said, "The bird never flew on the one wing, you know."
But what pierced me more deeply than his personality was the character of his poetry, which never took easy stances and confirmed Fitzgerald's remark that one measure of intelligence is the ability to hold conflicting opinions without being immobilized. Never a polemicist nor a partisan, Heaney showed how hard and necessary it is to see matters from opposing perspectives, though he was sometimes faulted for this by those who wanted propaganda, rather than haunted astonishment.
As an Irishman of his time (a northern Catholic nationalist who chose to live in the Republic), he was deeply distressed by the Troubles but also saw them as larger than immediate politics, as another manifestation of man's inhumanity to man. In his benchmark "North" (1975), he wrote of bog burials, victims of ritual torture preserved for centuries by the peat. Though his ostensible subjects are anonymous and ancient, his additional abiding concern is with the casualties of sectarian violence in his homeland and other torn territories. The language, his bardic "word-hoard," in its stern reserve and severe beauty, did take my breath away, but eventually gave it back, altered and enriched.
In "Bog Queen," Heaney acts as medium for one victim, decayed by "the seeps of winter" but still bearing witness to her own demise:
My diadem grew carious,
in the peat floe
like the bearings of history.
My sash was a black glacier
wrinkling, dyed weaves
and Phoenician stitchwork
rhetted on my breasts'
I knew winter cold
like the nuzzle of fjords
at my thighs –
the soaked fledge, the heavy
swaddle of hides.
This is daring, sensual language, intricate but not cryptic, and full of pathos as its melody is shaped by what Robert Penn Warren called "the tangled glitter of syllables," its sorrowful implications given an ironic twist and torque, what Scots-Irish dialect would call thrawn. But clarity was his aim, and his lyrics can ring as sharp and fresh as the brightest spring risen through rock, uisce beatha in Irish, "the water of life." For these qualities he received many awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, but his weave of candor and artifice, humility and fierceness tempered by mirth will continue to win him readers and champions.
In "The Second Coming," Yeats complained that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," but that earlier Irish Nobel laureate would surely look at the body of Heaney’s work and admit that every now and then one of the gifted will also possess an uncanny intensity and responsible discipline, which provide both the lifeblood of poetry and our reason not to give up celebration and hope.
R.T. Smith is writer-in-residence at Washington and Lee University, editor of W&L’s literary journal, “Shenandoah,” and author of a dozen books of poetry. He is the winner of the 2013 Carole Weinstein Prize for Poetry, which is awarded each year to a poet with strong connections to the Commonwealth of Virginia.