Seamus Heaney: Poet of Spade and Pen
PublishedSeptember 18, 2013 CategoryArts Social Action

Seamus Heaney: Poet of Spade and Pen

Among the many wonders of the world
Where is the equal of this creature, man?

…Nothing seems beyond him, except death.
Death he can defy but not defeat .

Seamus Heaney
‘The Burial at Thebes’ 2004

A quiet, slightly stunned sense of grief has characterised the public reaction to the going of our consummate poet Seamus Heaney. As usual, the media and celebrity hagiographers were quick off the mark, but the sad excesses which harrowed Yeats, Frost and other high profile public poets to their graves have been, thankfully, relatively muted.

For Seamus Heaney was quintessentially a ‘people’s poet’, deeply engaged in their histories of thought, origins and language, and committed to that ‘poetry of involvement’ that I have been so much missing, and arguing for in these spaces, since the 2008 financial melt-down washed away so much of the West’s hard-won social and economic gains.

So, given his too-early death, I am pleased to have drawn attention here to this key aspect of his genius as recently as March this year, and in the necessary company of his rare contemporary peers – Tony Harrison and Derek Walcott . The occasion was Tony Harrison’s first ‘uncensored’ reading (BBC Radio Four, 18 February 2013 ) of his 1980’s poem ‘V’ – a massively important and deeply moving poetry event.

I quoted Gregory Dowling’s view that the thesis underlying this sequence of Harrison’s poems was the assertion that “ it is by ‘owning the language’ that the ‘ruling classes’ have managed to maintain their social supremacy; so Harrison has taken up the task ‘of bringing the voices of the northern working classes into the classical forms of English poetry ‘.”

I doubt Dowling’s ‘poetry as class warfare’ rhetoric, but have long recognised that, for Harrison, poetry is a ‘craft’, in direct line of descent from those of his father and tradesmen forbears, and learned by hard work and apprenticeship to the craft masters – what Yeats called ‘sedentary toil and the imitation of great masters.’ Hence, says Harrison,

I strive to keep my lines direct and straight,
And try to make connections where I can…

And these words chime with those of another great craftsman poet I cited – Derek Walcott. He talks, too, of “ … trying to get rid of the mystique as much as possible … So we can then say that the craft is as ritualistic as that of a carpenter putting down his plane and measuring his stanzas and setting them squarely.”

So from that great day when I first opened Seamus Heaney’s ‘ Death of a Naturalist’, many years ago, it has been clear that he, too, saw himself as a worker, a craftsman, though with different tools, in the longer labouring traditions of his forbears. ‘Digging’ , which I quoted in March, is his moving life-affirmation of this view …

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father digging. I look down ….

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

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.

(from ‘Death of a Naturalist‘ 1966)

The ‘craft’ motif was to persist throughout Heaney’s life, surfacing again 40 years later, for instance, and with the same reverence, in his 2006 ‘District and Circle’ collection.

Seamus, make me a side-arm to take on the earth,
A suitable tool for digging and grubbing the ground,
Lightsome and pleasant to lean on or cut with or lift,
Tastily finished and trim and right for the hand ….

The grain of the wood and the line of the shaft nicely fitted
And best thing of all, the ring of it, sweet as a bell.

‘Poet to Blacksmith’
(from ‘District and Circle’ 2006)

This analogy suggested that much of the ‘craft’ of the poet might also be taught and learned.

“I can help you with that part,” he told his early students at Harvard, “ the other part is up to you “ ( Christopher Benfrey, New York Review blog, September 2013). “ He didn’t try to turn us into copies of himself. He rarely mentioned his own poems. Instead, he tried to find for us poets further along the path we students seemed to be taking.”

That was in the 1980s, as he turned 40, and in the comparative lull after the more spontaneous outpourings of his early poems. What then emerged, against the backdrop of the unspeakable troubles in his beloved Ireland, was a voice which uniquely spoke both to the wider public conscience and to the more intimate, loving domesticities of family life. It was a needed voice, recognised by his Nobel Prize, but always ‘ involved ‘ with the close or wider world about him.

His brilliant translation of Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ ( Faber and Faber 2004 ), which he adapted to form the libretto for the Dramma per Musica opera, ‘The Burial at Thebes’ ( Globe Theatre, 2008 ), spoke to the timeless conflicts between individual freedom and the State, but did not disguise the contemporary parallels between George W Bush and Creon, despotic King of Thebes.

So, as with Harrison, it is an ear for language, alive and inter-generational, and rich in inherited nuances and rhythms, which most powerfully activated his mission. Both, it also happens, could draw on the rich ‘classical’ tradition which has empowered many a poet’s voice; but it is the nearer, more complex multi-layering of family and tribal cultures and histories which has more often eluded the individual and collective creative memory.

Not so with Heaney.“ Memory was everything to Seamus” says his friend and occasional travel companion Andrew O’Hagan (Guardian Arts 3/09/13).

“ The memory of his father digging in the yard. The memory of peeling potatoes with his mother … He had a mind to Ireland’s memory, the seasonal return of faith and possibility, the falling away and coming back of things … He wanted to offer value to a notion of existence beyond the bounds of sense , and that is where his language led him, to the power of wonder and miracles in daily life”.

So it is of some consequence that he chose to share with us not only his poetry, but also the hard-run realities of the search. His Introduction to his translation of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Beowulf’ epic ( Faber and Faber 1999 ) is both a necessary preparation for any reader of the work; but also a free-standing ‘master-class’ in the creative process involved.

The work had a long, hesitant gestation between the invitation to undertake it and committing to it.

“ Even so, I had an instinct that it should not be let go. An understanding I had worked out for myself concerning my own linguistic and literary origins made me reluctant to abandon the task. I had noticed, for instance, that without any conscious attempt on my part certain lines in the first poem in my first book (‘Death of a Naturalist’) conformed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics,”

( Here he invokes the now-famous lines from ‘Digging’ above.)

“Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start … I suppose all I am saying is that I consider ‘Beowulf’ to be part of my voice- right. And yet to persuade myself that I was born into its language and that its language was born into me took a while: for someone who grew up in the political and cultural conditions of Lord Brookeborough’s Northern Ireland, it could hardly have been otherwise.”

So, to our great gain , we have this thrilling re-evocation of a great epic, by a process which Heaney memorably describes as “ some sense that our own little verse-craft can dock safe and sound at the big quay of the language“.

Seamus Heaney’s most certainly did.

They said that of all the great kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.

Those three lines end his ‘Beowulf’ saga.

Not a bad epitaph for Seamus Heaney himself, if we keep well in mind his laughing disavowal of anything so bumptious for an old Irish wordsmith.


© Ralph Windle 2013