Remembering Seamus Heaney

Remembering Seamus Heaney

The contrarian poet refused to toe any party line.


Seamus Heaney. (Reuters)

            I ate the day
 Deliberately, that its tang
 Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

               —from “Oysters,” by Seamus Heaney (1939–2013)

“I trust contrariness,” Seamus Heaney wrote nearly a quarter-century ago in his poem “Casting and Gathering.” For an artist as often esteemed for his graciousness and generosity as for the range and brilliance of his lyric gift, he nonetheless accepted the fact that putting noses out of joint across a spectrum of ideologies is the collateral damage a poet inflicts by doing honest work. For the three decades during which civil war devastated his native North of Ireland—his poems testified to nightmare interrogations, explosions and executions—Heaney could count on being drubbed by one faction for being insufficiently outspoken, and accused by another of seeding his verses with sectarian codes. Likewise did he kick against single-word descriptors preceding the word “poet”—even when offered like a crown of laurels—that place the artist in a particular job category: rural, wartime, Catholic, Irish. To do so, he claimed, “emulsifies unique choices and distresses into a unit of complacent diction.”

Heaney, who died on August 30, confected a courteous impermeability to the opinion of any pundit who displayed “all the fussy literalism of an official from the ministry of truth.” Explaining his resistance to following party lines, he once said, “I simply rebelled at being commanded.”

The apostleship of writers, living and dead, whom he counted as his spiritual circle were fellow contrarians, dedicated chastisers of the good-order police. From Anton Chekhov’s chronicle of what Heaney described as “the stink of oppression and the music of cruelty” at the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin Island, to Wilfred Owen’s outrage at the luring of young men like himself to their death in the trenches of World War I, to Osip Mandelstam’s slagging of Stalin as the “Kremlin Mountaineer” in the midst of state-generated famine, Heaney cherished writers who struck back against “herdspeak.” He shared his friend Joseph Brodsky’s belief that the poet’s chief social responsibility is to provide splendid work, and he also subscribed to Brodsky’s idea that “a reader who has a great experience of poetry is less likely to fall prey to demagoguery on the part of the politician.”

Vigorous as his engagement was with classical literature, Heaney reveled in the word shapes that filled the air of his childhood geography and turned what London salons might have called a patois into a language confident of its powers to name and conjure. From his earliest poems, he fashioned alluring lines out of that pungent rural Northern Irish word-hoard stocked with Ulster Scots, Irish Gaelic, Hiberno-English and Viking contributions. Heaney readers all over the planet breathe in South Derry words like bullaun, trig, dunting, rath, kesh, keel and hoke. The pleasure of every fragrant inhalation strengthens the claim of those who speak this language in their daily life to “possessing the rights to a space in the world,” as Heaney once wrote in a different context.

Heaney reclaimed the bog, a British Empire metaphor for all that the crown considered mucky, murky and backward about Irish rural life—the colonizers called the natives “bogmen” or “bog-trotters.” In one of his bog poems, he proposes an Irish equivalent of American Manifest Destiny, but instead of explorers headed across the huge horizons of the Great Plains toward the Pacific, Heaney’s pioneers must go vertical and downward—ever deeper into the bog toward a bottomless wet center that might be the Atlantic. From the bog’s darkness have been exhumed white butter churned in a time before automobiles, human bodies tanned and embalmed by bog juices long before the arrival of St. Patrick, and glistening treasure—gold armlets and anklets, torcs and tankards—vaulted away by Iron Age chieftains:

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
               —from “Bogland”

Heaney was mindful of the idea that even a great artist’s work takes place on ground where others have camped before, and labored before, most likely in silence and under stricture. He acknowledged “that embarrassment…which the poet may find as he exercises his free gift in the presence of the unfree and the hurt.” Any compromise of this gift would have betrayed not just himself, but all who had tasted freedom only in their dreams. So he made a career of committing that most sacred act of insubordination: he spoke in his own voice. “The achievement of a poem, after all, is an experience of release,” Heaney said. “The tongue, governed for so long in the social sphere by considerations of tact and fidelity, by nice obeisances to one’s origin within the minority or the majority, this tongue is suddenly ungoverned.”

In 1995, James Longenbach reviewed The Redress of Poetry, a collection of Seamus Heaney’s lectures at Oxford.

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