Monday, April 13, 2015

National Poetry Month—Seamus Heaney, the Voice and Soul of Ireland

Seamus Heaney as young poet.

The Irish are natural poets.  Their bards are as numerous as dandelions in a June lawn.  It’s an offensive cultural misconception to blame the Blarney stone.  Perhaps long, damp, cold winters around a turf fire with nothing else to do but spin lies which became yarns which became ballads had more to do with it.  Perhaps it was the abundance of poteen, whiskey, and stout.  Or maybe a genetic melancholy that ribaldry and bonhomie seeks to mask.  Whatever it is, scratch and Irish man or woman  to bleed verse.
That is not to say all poets or poetry are equal.  The Gift is more finely developed in some.  And a handful transcend even common greatness to achieve something more.  In the 20th Century there William Butler Yeats at its beginning and holding up the tent at the other end was Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize Laureate  who was called at his death, “The most famous poet in the world."
Seamus Justin Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 at Mossbawn, the family farmstead in rural County Londonderry, Northern Ireland.  He was the oldest of nine children in a Catholic family.  His father was a farmer and a cattle dealer, a trade which connected him to the mythic roots or Gaelic culture.  Members of his mother’s family had long been engaged in the mills and shops of the local Protestant owned textile industry which rooted him in Ulster’s tumultuous industrialization and attendant class and labor strife.  
As a lad he attended a local parish school.  When he was 12 years old, about the time his family relocated  to nearby Bellaghy,  Heaney won a scholarship to St. Columb’s College, a Catholic boarding school in Derry.  In 1957 he began his studies in English and literature at Queen’s University Belfast.  That city would be his base for most of the next ten year which coincided with the Catholic Civil Rights Movement, and the virtual civil war known as The Troubles.
Graduating from Queens in 1961 Heaney went on to St Joseph’s Teacher Training College in Belfast.  His first assignment as a pedagogue was at St Thomas’s Intermediate School in west Belfast where the Headmaster was writer Michael McLaverty who became a father figure and mentor encouraging the younger man in his writing and helping to get his early poems published.  These poems recounted the experiences of his rural childhood—his grandfather “cutting turf”—and wrenching personal experiences like the death of a four-year-old brother after being hit by a car while he was away at boarding school.  He was recognized for his deep sense of place and connectedness.
In 1963 Heaney returned to St. Joseph’s as a lecturer.  He was soon recruited by Queen’s instructor and poet, Anglo/Polish Philip Hobsbaum to join his Belfast Group of young poets which put Heaney in contact with other writers of his generation.  It was a fertile environment which enriched and encouraged him but from which he quickly emerged as the leading figure. 
He married Marie Devlin, another school teacher and writer in 1965 and later the same year Queen’s university issued his first slender volume, 11 Poems for its annual arts festival.  But 1966 was a landmark year for him.  Not only was the first of his two sons born—the second would follow two years later, but Farber and Farber, a major commercial publisher, issued his first major collection, Death of a Naturalist.   Not only did the title poem earn widespread praise but the volume won the prestigious Gregory Award for Young Writers originated by Lady Gregory herself and the Geoffrey Faber Prize.  At 27 years old he was suddenly recognized as a major Irish writer—he rejected all attempts to brand him a British writer base on his residency in Northern Ireland.  Queen’s University was eager to snap him up as lecturer in Modern English.  He and fellow Belfast Group member Michael Longley undertook their joint Room to Rhyme reading tour in 1968.  This tour helped establish his fame as a compelling, dramatic reader of his own works.  Later public reading would attract such a following that they were compared to concerts by reining rock gods.
Death of a Naturalist
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Seamus Heaney

With the release of his second major collection, Door into the Dark, Heaney began to attract attention beyond Ireland and the British Isles.  In no small part due to his poems set against The Troubles, he was invited to be a guest scholar and poet at the University of California at Berkley.  He would return many times to the U.S. both as a touring reader and as a respected academic.  
In 1972 he left his post at Queen’s and relocated to Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland to write full time.  The move affirmed his Irish identity, but also removed him the bloody violence that was engulfing the North.
That violence was personal and palpable to Heaney.  Family members and close friends were killed—some assassinated and his work includes their elegies and memorials.  He was called on Laureate-like to compose poems for public occasions and historical anniversaries.  He could draw on the both the mythic past and the real experience of ordinary people in these efforts.  One of his most noted such poems, Requiem for the Croppies was written for  the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion, but it recalled the doomed Rising of 1798 which was largely led and inspired by Dissenting Protestant idealists while illiterate Catholic peasants did most of the dying.  He made a point of reading the piece to both Catholic and Protestant audiences insisting that “To read Requiem for the Croppies wasn’t to say ‘up the IRA’ or anything.  It was silence-breaking rather than rabble-rousing.  You don’t have to love it. You just have to permit it.
Requiem for the Croppies
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley...
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp...
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching... on the hike...
We found new tactics happening each day:
We'd cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until... on Vinegar Hill... the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August... the barley grew up out of our grave.

Seamus Heaney

Yet Seamus did not want to be thought of as political.  He did was not a Republican in the sense of a partisan and he dreaded to be thought of as a spokesperson.  He was simply an Irishman who yearned to live in Ireland.  He rejected all other identities.  He was almost as popular in the United Kingdom as in Ireland.  At one point three quarters of all of the poetry books sold there were written by Seamus Heaney.  He held no personal animus to the English as a people.  He toured and read there often and counted among his friends most of the leading British poets.  But he did not want to be British.  He was once offered the post of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom and turned it down.  When some of his poems were selected for The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry he objected publicly in verse:
An Open Letter
Don’t be surprised if I demur, for, be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.

Seamus Heaney

Heaney, the captivating wit and stellar public reader.
Though the ‘70’s and ‘80’ Heaney was prolific as a poet and growing ever more popular as a reader of his own work.  He also found himself still in demand in academia.  After the publication of his fourth collection, North, and an influential chapbook dealing with Irish national identity and union called Stations, Heaney left Wicklow to move to Dublin where he  became Head of English at Carysfort College.  Career retrospectives, Selected Poems 1965-1975 and Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 were published in 1980.  The next year the Irish nation’s cultural arts council  Aosdána was formed and Heaney was among the first inductees.  He would remain active in the organization and in 1997 was elected  a Saoi, one of its five elders and its highest honor.
In 1981 Heaney began a long relationship with Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts first as a visiting professor then from 1985 to ‘87 the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory and the  Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence  from 1998 to 2006.  He was also recognized with Doctorates from his old alma mater Queens’s and the American Catholic Fordham University.  He got his real Litt.D. from Bates College in Maine in 1986.
In 1985 he was asked by Amnesty International Ireland to compose a work to celebrate the United Nations and the work of Amnesty on International Human Rights Day.  The organization has taken it to heart and made it an essential part of its identity and mission.  Inspired by it, AI has named its highest honor the Ambassador of Conscience Award.
From the Republic of Conscience
When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs
woman having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

Seamus Heaney
In 1989 Heaney drew a plumb when he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University for a five year term.  The position did not require him to be in residence, only to occasionally lecture, stage readings, and encourage student poets.  He was able to continue to split most his time between the US and Eire.
In addition to more acclaimed volumes of poetry, Heaney was branching out to playwriting-- The Cure at Troy based on Sophocles’s Philoctetes in 1990 and translation with Beowulf: A New Translation.  Honors continued to pile up including being named Honorary Patron of the University Philosophical Society, Trinity College, Dublin, and was Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1991.

Heaney with his wife Marie and family with his Nobel Prize.
But all of that was trumped in 1995 when Heaney at the relatively young age of 56 became the fourth Irishman after Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Becket to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Reflecting on the heady company he was in, he told reporters, “It’s like being a little foothill at the bottom of a mountain range. You hope you just live up to it.” 
Later in the ‘90’s Heaney twice won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award first for his collection The Spirit Level and the next year for his Beowulf translation.  He was also elected to the Royal Irish Academy which he accepted the same year he was elected Saoi of Aosdána.
In the new millennium Queen’s University opened the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry which houses his media archive including extensive collections of filmed and taped readings, audio recordings, and radio and television programs from around the world.  The Centre also has programing that encourages young writers.  Heaney donated a substantial portion of his literary archive to Emory University in Georgia which already contained archives from fellow members of the old Belfast Group of poets.  Still later he boxed his literary notes including early drafts of many poems and donated them to the National Library of Ireland in Dublin.  Thus most of his personal memorabilia and literary work was divided between Northern Ireland, the U.S., and the Republic of Ireland reflecting his career.
Heaney continued to publish and maintained a busy schedule of his readings, which continued to so pack in adoring fans that they were tagged Heaney boppers.  A 2006 stroke left him disabled and sidelined for a while.  Former President Bill Clinton was among the many admirers who visited him in the hospital.  Heaney reflected on his experience in his 2010 twelfth collection,  Human Chain which won the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection  and the T.S. Eliot Prize.  
Human Chain
for Terence Brown
Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over the mob, I was braced again
With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I’d worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave –
The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed
That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.

—Seamus Heaney

The honored elder.

Heaney eventually recovered and resumed his busy schedule of readings and projects.  In June 2012, Heaney accepted the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry’s Lifetime Recognition Award and gave a twelve-minute speech of acceptance filled with good humor.  At home in Dublin he was busy preparing his second retrospective collection  Selected Poems 1988-2013.

On August 29, 2014 Heany fell outside a restaurant in Dublin and was rushed to the hospital.  He was awaiting emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain when he died the next morning. 

Heaney’s death stunned Ireland and the literary world.  Irish President Michael D. Higgins was among the many speakers at his September 2 funeral in Dublin.  His body was taken to Northern Ireland and the same evening was laid to rest in his ancestral village next to his parents and siblings.  The funeral was broadcast live by RTÉ television and radio and the radio service aired  a continuous broadcast, from 8 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. of his Collected Poems album, recorded by Heaney in 2009.  Memorial events were also held, at Emory, Harvard, Oxford University. and the Southbank Centre in London. Leading US poetry organizations also assembled in New York to commemorate the death.

Perhaps Heaney’s friend the Czech/English playwright  Tom Stoppard best summed up Heaney’s life and work.  “Seamus never had a sour moment, neither in person nor on paper.”


No comments:

Post a Comment