Today, we pay tribute to Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939–2013), laid to rest this past weekend. Nobel laureate, a commandeur of France’s l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and a past professor of poetry and oratory at both Oxford and Harvard Universities, Heaney was a poet with an international reputation. But he was also a product of his own Irish history, a Catholic native of Northern Ireland but, during much of his adulthood, a resident of Ireland’s Republic. Though his poetry, collected in some 20 volumes, defies simple characterization or categorization, Heaney couldn’t help but be known as an “Irish poet,” a loaded term that means he told of the political and religious troubles that beset modern Northern Ireland and divided his home island into two sides of a complicated civil war.
I lived in Dublin in 1992 and ’93, during the last decade of the Irish conflict. Once, on a trip to Belfast in the North, I had the chance to ask a family who made their home there, “What is life like in one of the most bombed cities in the world?” The reply one of them gave was matter-of-fact: “It’s like a pothole in the road: we have to drive around it every day, and it’s an inconvenience, but we don’t let it alter our lives.” Thinking back on their perspective, I’m put in mind of a recent photo posted on Twitter a few weeks ago during the unrest in Egypt: beachgoers going on with their holiday, directly in the shadow of raging violence and unrest.
As a poet, Seamus Heaney worked in the shadow of violence and unrest for much of his career. Though he never let it dictate his life or his life’s work, he also knew that ignoring it wasn’t an option. He confronted the conflict head-on in poems like “Funeral Rites” (“Now as news comes in / of every neighbourly murder / we pine for ceremony, / customary rhythms”) and “Act of Union” (“No treaty / I foresee will salve completely your tracked / And stretchmarked body, the big pain / That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again.”). But in other poems, he admitted to feeling conflicted; as the years of violence wore on, it seemed that words were increasingly meaningless, news reports grew repetitive, and even poetic comment became pointless. That is where he finds himself in “Whatever You Say Say Nothing” (1975):
I’m writing this just after an encounter With an English journalist in search of ‘views On the Irish thing.’ I’m back in winter Quarters where bad news is no longer news, Where media-men and stringers sniff and point, Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads Litter the hotels. The times are out of joint But I incline as much to rosary beads As to the jottings and analyses Of politicians and newspapermen . . . The famous Northern reticence, the tight gag of place And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing Where to be saved you only must save face And whatever you say, you say nothing. . . . O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod, Of open minds as open as a trap, . . . . . .We hug our little destiny again.
No doubt the temptation to say nothing—to turn away from the tired subject of Ireland’s political struggle—was strong to the likes of Seamus Heaney, gifted with the ability to write poetry for the ages, destined to rank among the world’s greatest poets. But, as we remember Heaney and his poetic legacy, we are grateful that he did speak to us of his homeland, and that he did embrace the “little destiny” to which he was born.