Irish Poetry and its Super Hero: Seamus Heaney

For a time, I lived in Dublin. A time that feels far, far away now; since the pandemic has made time an accordion—shorter, longer, short, short, long. Mostly I spent that year in the rarefied Trinity College library researching all day just two flights above the enshrined Book of Kells. Dating back to 600 A.D. the illuminated manuscript inked on velum by Irish monks, the Book of Kells rests in state as a testament to the tenacity of Irish culture against invaders.

At closing time, I’d gather my things and step into the rush hour bustle of North Dublin. Poking around the storefronts and cafes gave me a feel for a foreign city where I understood the language, but not the customs. One such day, it was a Friday as I recall, I came upon a cheerful-looking pub where smartly turned-out women were seated among the tweedy men. A respectable place for a lady to nurse a pint, I decided.

Stepping inside I found it a narrow place, flanked in old wood and marble. The stained-glass windows washed everyone with gold and red hues, making everyone look lighthearted. It had the elemental allure of a quality tavern. Looking around for a place to sit, I wandered into the furthest reaches of the pub. There I saw a middle-aged man holding court. Ducking sideways, I saw it was Seamus Heaney. He was encircled by a garland of attentive young poets. His voice, a soft baritone, forced them to lean in as if sipping from his aura.

Heaney was not yet a Nobel Laureate. He was still teaching in Dublin, not Harvard nor Oxford as would happen later in his career. But that is the way Dublin operated in those days. Maybe it still does. Poets drank pints and talked about literature in pubs. It was entertainment. But it is also fair to say that Heaney was unique among the literati in his generosity. Before he was famous, he was famously generous. Reading his work again, I’d forgotten or never saw how Heaney’s poetry was deceptively simple and profoundly humane in its detailed observations. But the core gesture of Heaney’s work is a precision with language. The result is easy-to-read verses that operate on paired levels: life and death, affection and obligation, passion and ruin.

Last week, I found myself in the local public library walking past a display on Irish authors. I picked up a collection of Heaney’s greatest hits—one hundred poems in all—and added it to the stack of books I was straining to carry. It turned out to be the gem of the lot.

Heaney’s lifelong pals were playwright Brian Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa) and Seamus Deane (critic and novelist of Reading in the Dark); all three men grew up on the violent streets of Derry. As upstarts, they published chapbooks on the sly and held public lectures about Edmund Burke and W.B. Yeats during the troubles, wielding a defiant commitment to Irish intellectual life. No matter how high his gifts would lift him up, Heaney never disentangled himself from his roots. The people of Ireland loved him for it. And like W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett, average people knew of him, even if they never read much of his verse.

Not contented to craft a beautiful phrase, there is also the deepening to the poem that is eerie as it moves us downward: “When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch, a white face hovered over the bottom.” Heaney’s gaze keeps us at the well. He never complicates the focus of the poem by adding other locations, or even voices. Other voices are implied: “I savored the rich clash when a bucket plummeted down the end of the rope. So deep you saw no reflection in it.” The last stanza sucks us fathomless into the unconscious with a dark invocation of selfhood that does double duty for the reader. It connects us to the power of the earth that holds the essence of the poet’s identity, calling him to see not only himself, but his purpose: “Now to pry into the roots, to finger slime, to stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” This ending is of a style that repeats across Heaney’s greatest hits, where the poet’s search for self is woven—clotted and knotted into the land. As such, it is both passionate and chthonic.

One of Heaney’s most quoted poems, A Drink of Water, enacts a woman walking to a well. It should be said that poets of Heaney’s generation held a fervor for the Irish rebellion of 1816, but deplored the intellectual tyranny of Eamon de Valera, who bartered off Northern Ireland in 1921 to appease the British, and then took full authority over all aspects of Irish life. For example, he banned the teaching of ancient Druid culture in schools as it was deemed pagan. It’s not for nothing that in the pagan realm the source of water is sacred, holy. Ancient women learned ways of using water to heal. A Drink of Water captures the sacred mystery of water with the unadorned image of a woman at the well. Biblical invocations aside, Heaney again keeps the focus humble, specific. “The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter and slow diminuendo as it filled, announced her.” Next Heaney warbles full-throated chants using sumptuous language: “brimming bucket, treble creak, moon lifted past her gable.” The poem ends by reminding the reader of the obligation we have to the moments that heal us: “Remember the giver, fading off the lip.”

Often, Heaney’s poems reflected on the troubles. In an interview with the Irish Times, he described the writing of “Bogland,” which was in the collection of 100, as “like opening a gate.” The poem describes a sinking, sucking, center-of-the-Earth pull of ancient muck containing ancestral cruelty, the unconscious, the self, the roots of words, and miles deep of soggy, rotting primordial bones. It ends with a spooky, existential knowing: “The wet centre is bottomless.”

My journey into Heaney’s most popular poems was a benediction. His sense of humanity amidst the natural world is a hallmark of Heaney’s work. Everything is alive, upfront, calling the reader to venture into the natural world with him.

Heaney helped me fall in love again with language, not for the purpose of mastery, but for the pure pleasure of it.

One more thing: Reading Heaney’s poems also reacquainted me with the cultural importance of literature among the Irish. I believe it is unique to Ireland that for such a small country with a population equal to the state of Massachusetts, it has produced so many renowned writers. In truth, it’s a source of national pride. According to the RTE media (the equivalent of PBS) the day Heaney was laid to rest, September 1, 2013, musician Bono attended the funeral, along with many politicians and dignitaries. But what would have more likely moved Heaney was that meanwhile across town was the All-Ireland Gaelic football semifinal where more than 80,000 spectators rose to their feet to bid him farewell. They clapped for two minutes in appreciation of Ireland’s national poet and arguably the county’s most world-renowned composer of verse.

Have a happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Photo by Naomi Hutchinson on Unsplash