Ireland’s best-known poet, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, is a man of humble beginnings whose words and images swoop and soar from the earthy to the transcendent.
“He is respected, admired and, obviously to win the Nobel Prize, he is important, but he is also loved,” says Canisius College English professor Mick Cochrane, coordinator of the Canisius College Contemporary Writers Series, which will bring Heaney to the campus Tuesday for the 10th annual Hassett Family Reading.
“People know Heaney’s poems, and their copies of his first book are well-worn,” says Cochrane. “There are poems out there [by other writers] that even I, with a Ph.D., don’t understand, but these are poems that draw in ordinary people.”
They have certainly drawn in students in the Irish Literature class being taught by the Rev. James Pribek, S.J., who has started every class session this semester with the reading and discussion of a Heaney poem. Last week Pribek said, “Today they were actually asking me for more time to discuss the poems, and I agreed I would extend it. They are eager to discuss his work. I am going to be sad when we are no longer doing a Heaney poem a day.”
In one of his best-known poems, “Digging,” published in his first book, “Death of a Naturalist,” in 1966, Heaney writes:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.
His father begins to dig below the window:
By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.
My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.”
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
‘Creatureliness of our species’
In a written interview with The News from his home in Dublin, Heaney, who was born and raised on a farm in County Derry, talked about his influences, his view of the future of poetry and his accessible imagery.
Q: Does it ever surprise people to find that your poetic images are so humble – your father plowing, the families of frogs, natural things the readers may have experienced themselves?
Heaney: The word “humble” comes from the Latin humus, meaning the ground, and since many of my poems are based on memory of early days on a farm it’s no surprise that I should end up working that ground. Digging in with the pen.
In fact, there’s a similar image in an Irish language poem about the life of the scholar where the metaphor is ploughing rather then digging: “He drives a team of quills/on his white field.” That people without first-hand experience of these things can still respond to them says something for the creatureliness of our species, the way we are what Wordsworth called “inmates of this active universe.”
On earth we are humility-active, as it were.
Q: There have been many cultural explanations for Ireland’s glorious literary tradition, from the reverence given to storytellers to the oppression of the people. Do you feel that any cultural influences affected you personally, putting you on the path to poetry?
Heaney: As a first-generation scholarship boy, moving from elementary school to grammar school to university, the cultural influences I was most susceptible to came in my English and Irish classes. When I entered Queen’s University in Belfast I had six years of Irish behind me and was fluent enough. I also had a strong awareness of English as the language that had ousted the native tongue, and yet I had a far stronger grip on English literature than literature in Irish.
As a sixth-former [roughly the senior year of high school] in an honours class of four, we had intensive teaching and a traditional canonical syllabus: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Hardy – no 20th century author appeared. I ended up knowing most of the Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales” by heart, most of “Hamlet” too. We did study Irish language texts also, but not as intensely and not primarily as imaginative works – there was a great deal of preparation and examination of our proficiency in translation. Nevertheless a few poems managed to survive the pedagogic rack and cross into memory where they revived and gained power as the years went on.
The first poet who put me on the road to poetry was undoubtedly Gerard Manley Hopkins. Then contemporary Irish poets (English-speaking) such as Patrick Kavanagh and the English poet Ted Hughes. At university I encountered Anglo Saxon poetry, which I enjoyed for the heft of its language and its melancholy – and the final fruit of that was a translation of “Beowulf” almost 40 years later. Yet I had paid my dues to Irish 20 years before that when I did a translation of the medieval Irish romance, Buile Suibhne [“The Madness of Suibhne,” or “Sweeney’s Frenzy”].
Having said that, I should say also that I always felt I had access to the old well and underground springs of Irish poetry – the earliest hermit poetry, the resplendent 17th century aislings (dream visions) lamenting the end of the Gaelic order, the songs of love and loss. And as the years go on, the more they mean to me.
Q: In an era when language has been stripped to its most utilitarian by the mechanical ways we communicate, poetry stands as a rebuke to the blunt and artless. What do you see as the future of poetry? Is it tenacious and tough, like gorse, or a fragile thing that must be intentionally preserved?
Heaney: The future of poetry abides in the language, waiting for some poet or poets to hatch it out. What it will be cannot be predicted: it could be argued, indeed, that the life of poetry is a creationist rather then an evolutionary matter.
When the new voice arrives, there is always a sense of an intervention. Bewilderment too at times.
Q: Do you enjoy doing readings?
Heaney: If I have prepared my list of poems and if the audience seems to be enjoying the event, I too enjoy it.
This will be my second visit to Canisius College. I was there to do a reading roughly 30 years ago, but this time has a special significance because there’s friendship involved. I’ve known Joseph Hassett, who endowed this lecture, for years. Joe is a scholar of Irish literature, a frequent visitor to Ireland, known for his book on W.B. Yeats and his muses – flesh and blood muses in W.B.’s case. I’ll be remembering as well a visit made a few years after Canisius to the University of Buffalo, an event introduced by Robert Creeley.
Enchanting the listener
Joseph Hassett, a 1964 Canisius graduate and corporate trial attorney in Washington whose family has endowed the lecture series, says that Heaney’s reference to the importance of the audience “calls to mind one of the great features of our readings over the past decade. Because the college teaches the upcoming reader’s work, students come to the reading prepared to contribute to a communal experience with the reader. ... It creates a palpable sense of shared enjoyment. The series has been a living illustration of the wisdom of Yeats’ insistence that poetry should be spoken – or chanted, rather than read – to enchant the listener and the passer-by.”
The Hassett Family Reading series, which began 10 years ago with Irish-American author William Kennedy, has featured such stellar writers as Colm Toibin, Sebastian Barry, Eamon Grennan and Paul Muldoon. They are, for the most part, also friends of Hassett, whose life was changed by a 1963 scholarship established by Monsignor Leo Toomey that provided a student from each of three local Catholic colleges with airfare to Ireland and enrollment in study programs in Dublin and in Sligo, where Yeats lived and wrote.
Of Heaney, Hassett said, “Everybody who knows him really loves him. He’s so generous, so kindly, and so human. He radiates a kind of inner peace and a kind of spirituality that is not religiously defined, but somehow he is evoking the core essence of humanity, very encompassing, very unselfish, very other-directed.”
The Canisius College campus, as well as the local Irish-American and literary communities, are fairly abuzz over the visit. Cochrane says students who have been studying Heaney’s work include creative writing students, who “are looking at his poems as an example of craft and as beautiful made objects.”
“In the zillion things I have read about Heaney recently,” says Pribek, “someone was saying that there are a lot of wonderful poets writing, but with him, we get to see the world with his balanced disposition and through his loving eye. I was thinking that especially in this day and age, when you think of the fractious, argumentative, very narrow world we live in, his view has gotten more and more broad over the years and much more inclusive of all times and cultures. That’s why I think he’s good medicine for the post-modern world.”
By Seamus Heaney
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At ten o’clock our neighbours drove me home.
In the porch I met my father crying —
He had always taken funerals in his stride —
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.
The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’
Whispers informed strangers that I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand
In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple.
He lay in a four foot box, as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
By Seamus Heaney
As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.
A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.
Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now, to pry into 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.