Poet and literature teacher Joseph Ross (Gospel of Dust and Meeting Bone Man) has written a lovely, graceful tribute to Seamus Heaney. He holds before us the broken bread of a broken heart in a world in which the word is breaking. But, as Heaney would remind, from which the phoenix rises.
It is hard to know what to write today. Yesterday morning, at school, getting ready to discuss two of Anne Bradstreet’s poems with my American Literature students, I learned that Seamus Heaney had died. What I know today is this: my poetry heart is breaking.
And I am not alone. Irish Prime Minister, their Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said: “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people.” His death brings “…a great sorrow to Ireland.” Indeed. And not just to Ireland but to people who love poetry everywhere. Seamus Heaney was widely regarded as one of the finest poets of our time. No question. He was also considered a most humble and decent man. He was married, a father and a grandfather. His personal life was stable and not flashy.
He wrote of the Irish people who worked the land, the Irish people who suffered British oppression. He did this in such a way that honored the people, the land, and at times shamed the British. But he did not fall into a polemic. He refused to glorify the Irish Republican Army. He might have supported their goals but he opposed many of their methods. He resisted labeling sides as simply good vs. evil. He knew more complexity than that.
Poet Annie Deppe (Wren Cantata), who lives in County Galway with her husband poet Ted Deppe, sent this note on the death of Seamus Heaney:
We may be heading to Bellaghy on Monday for his burial. Take a look at the Irish Times. Fintan O’Toole’s article is worth checking out. There is a lot of coverage. The tears continue.
The entire country of Ireland is in mourning. The video clip interviews of ordinary people praising and remembering Seamus Heaney are stunning. Below is an excerpt from Fintan O’Toole’s beautiful essay in The Irish Times. Fintan O’Toole writes:
Like all great poets, Seamus Heaney was an alchemist.
He turned our disgrace into grace, our petty hatreds into epic generosity, our dull clichés into questioning eloquence, the leaden metal of brutal inevitability into the gold of pure possibility.
He lacked the arrogance to tell us who we are – much more importantly, he told us what we are. He reminded us that Ireland is a culture before it is an economy. And in the extraordinary way he bore himself, the dignity and decency and the mellow delight that shone from him, he gave us self-respect.
In The Tempest, Miranda exclaims “O brave new world, / That has such people in it.”
Seamus Heaney made us gasp in wonder that, for all its follies and terrors, Irish culture had such a person in it.
Seamus Heaney,74, one of the greatest living poets writing in the “English” language, died today at a clinic in Ireland.
Robert Lowell called Heaney “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” Lowell didn’t live to see the full grandeur of Heaney’s accomplishments.
I’m in a bit of shock at the news.
The night I heard Seamus Heaney read his poetry at the Kennedy Center was one of the highlights of my literary life.
Most memorably he read from his own translation of Brian Merriman’s “The Midnight Court,” in which the women of Ireland put the men on trial:
‘Get up,’ she said, ‘and on your feet!’
What do you think gives you the right
To shun the crowds and the sitting court?
A court of justice, truly founded,
And not the usual, rigged charade,
But a fair and clement court of women
of the gentlest stock and regimen.
The Irish race should be grateful always
For such a bench, agreed and wise,
In session now two days and a night,
In the spacious fort on Graney Heights …
… Blame arrogant kings, blame emigration,
But it’s you and your spunkless generation–
Your a source blocked off that won’t refill.
You have failed your women, one and all.
I’ve taught Heaney’s poem “Station Island” as part of prayer and poetry retreats. I’ve written essays comparing “Station Island” with Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Piccu.” I’ve listened to audio of Heaney reading and lecturing simply to luxuriate in his language.
How can that singular voice be stilled? Who will answer now when I call out in the “republic of conscience”? There will be quite a céilí tonight in the celestial courts!
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said the death of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney today has brought a “great sorrow to Ireland” and only the poet himself could describe the depth of his loss to the nation.
Mr Kenny said: “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people”.
Heaney died this morning at the Blackrock Clinic aged 74 after a short illness.
He was admitted to the clinic for a procedure but died prior to the operation.
President Michael D Higgins said Heaney’s contribution “to the republics of letters, conscience, and humanity was immense”.
“As tributes flow in from around the world, as people recall the extraordinary occasions of the readings and the lectures, we in Ireland will once again get a sense of the depth and range of the contribution of Seamus Heaney to our contemporary world, but what those of us who have had the privilege of his friendship and presence will miss is the extraordinary depth and warmth of his personality,” he said.
Mr Higgins, himself a published poet, described Heaney as warm, humourous, caring and courteous.
“A courtesy that enabled him to carry with such wry Northern Irish dignity so many well-deserved honours from all over the world,” he said.
“Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus’ poems. Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organisations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience.” …
Poet Theo Dorgan, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Ireland at a poetry workshop several years ago, said:
Seamus Heaney would react in “half embarrassment” at being compared to the great Irish writers such as W.B Yeats, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, but “he deserved it. He is there.” He was also a very loved poet and people “just beamed” in his presence. He had, more than any other poet he met, “genuine humility. He knew his gift was just that, a gift”. He was a supportive writer who offered “solidarity and companionship” to others aspiring to be poets, Dorgan said.
Many of us have had the experience of responding to poems so viscerally that we are physically and emotionally shaken as they speak to us. We have a heightened sense that somehow the opposites of life – birth and death, connectedness and brokenness, love and fear – are being held together. We hold our breath on the brink of being suffused with meaning. Words glow on the page and like magnets seem to pull us out of our usual harried state into a place where we recognize our own right to be passionate, to be human beings on a divine quest.
Researchers have made some intriguing discoveries. The typical length of the line in poetry in cultures the world over is virtually identical, taking between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds to pronounce. There is a convincing theory that when words convey meaning to us in this short package, followed by a tiny pause before the next line, it allows the input to pass from one hemisphere of the brain to the other, and so our receptivity is fully opened and our consciousness unified. No wonder human culture and religion has placed such value on metred poetry and song in the sharing of meaning, and in ritual. No wonder that pages and pages of text or hours of speech seldom have a fraction of the effect that a short poem committed to memory can have as it lodges in our consciousness and continues to illuminate and challenge us from within.
I am sure I could write an entire spiritual biography by stringing together the poems that came to me unsought as visiting angels at the right time year after year. About 15 poems of Rilke that I learned 40 years ago shaped my whole way of feeling about God: “we feel round rage and desolation the finally enfolding tenderness.” I look through the pages, worn round the edges from use, where I have copied out the poems. Here’s the Tao Te Ching and Li Po. Here are the poems of David Whyte: “always this fire smolders inside. When it remains unlit, the body fills with dense smoke.” e.e. cummings: “all which isn’t singing is mere talking.” Rumi. Mirabai. Machado. W.H. Auden. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Peguy. None of them deliberately researched. We just come upon the poems when we are ready.
In a beautiful poem, Seamus Heaney remembers the counsel given in confession by a Spanish priest: simply, “Read poems as prayers.” Wise man.
… Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight :
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water. …
I’m headed tomorrow for Dublin and then the Dingle Peninsula. I’ve got my copy of the new Sister Fidelma murder mystery, Prayer for the Damned, by Peter Tremayne. I’ve got my Lonely Planet Ireland book. I’ve got my pocket Bible and a paperback of Seamus Heaney’s Station Island.
I’ll be attending a writers workshop in Howth, outside Dublin, with poets Ted Deppe and Annie Deppe, and non-fiction writer Suzanne Strempek Shea. I’m really looking forward to having concentrated time to rest and write.
Then I’m catching the train north to Belfast to visit Anthea McWilliams, founder of the HoiPolloi Dance Company. Anthea’s just completed a fantastic project called Slow Dancing Up Ireland. Part public performance art, part peace initiative, Anthea did sneak dance performances from the tip of Northern Ireland to the bottom of Ireland. She danced on country roads in response to the “sounds” of the land. Check out her project here.
Finally, I’m going out to the Dingle Peninsula to the region of the Gaeltacht, where Irish is still spoken, to visit the ancient monastic beehive hermitages and make the pilgrimage up Ireland’s Holy Mountain (Mt. Brandon).
I’m also planning on downing Irish oysters and tasting a Guiness or two! Look for updates from the Emerald Isle..