By Juliet Aykroyd
(credit: Thea Lacey)
I like to believe that most people compose at least one poem at some time in their lives. Recently I found a ditty tucked away among my late mother's papers. It was written by me in kindergarten: four lines about Santa Claus. I remember proudly presenting this to my mother all those aeons ago. I also came across some horrible adolescent versicles which I binned instantly. Love, or the lack of it, is a favourite topic in most people's poems, we are told, along with death, animals and the weather.
When Seamus Heaney died last August, I found myself pondering on why so few people write poems that are celebrated during their lifetimes, poems which linger sometimes for years, sometimes forever; and why most people's poems are destined for time's trashcan. What makes a great poet great? Heaney is surely one of the great ones. He was born in County Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1939, into an agricultural family. He discovered poetry at an early age, and during his lifetime published thirteen major collections. From the first – Death of a Naturalist (1966) – to the last – Human Chain (2010) – his oeuvre received rapt attention and prestigious awards, culminating in the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel puts him in the company of an international galaxy of poets including Tomas Transtromer, Czeslaw Milosz, Pablo Neruda, Wislawa Szymborska, Derek Walcott, T.S.Eliot and another Irish poet to win the prize, in 1923: W.B.Yeats.
The making of poems was Heaney's vocation. He left a body of work that on one hand passionately responds to immediate experience, and on the other reaches out to universal human themes. He never gave up on a personal quest for fresh ways of weaving form and sound together. As he describes it in his Nobel Lecture, Crediting Poetry, he was always on "a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one's poetry or one's life – turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination."
He was a prolific essayist too, a translator, a playwright and a teacher who generously shared his deep love and huge knowledge of poetry. People who knew him speak of his attentiveness to others, and his kindness, his aptness to embrace all kinds of people. His poems reflect this sociability. At one level he is the subject of academic dissertations; at another he can be understood by schoolchildren studying English Literature syllabuses. He is enjoyed by people who don't like poetry. The Irish poet Colette Bryce tells us: "When I was growing up in Derry, Heaney was the one poet whose books found a place in ordinary domestic life, and in homes where poetry was otherwise a rare visitor. I have a 1970s paperback of Door Into the Dark that seems to attest to this, covered as it is in crayon marks and doodles by various siblings."
Productivity. Dedication. Commitment to artistic progress. Accessibility. These are some of the requisites, in general terms, of lasting poetic fame, and Heaney embodies them all. But whoever expectantly opens one of his collections won't be concerned with the poet's immortality, but with what is written down on the page: the unique voice of this particular person. How to describe the voice and music that compose Seamus Heaney?
The Nobel committee's elegant one-line commendation is a starting place: he is cited for "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past." The first Glanmore sonnet, from Field Work (1979), instances some of these things:
"Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground.
The mildest February for twenty years
Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound
Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors.
Our road is steaming, the turned-up acres breathe.
Now the good life could be to cross a field
And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe
Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled.
Old plough-socks gorge the subsoil of each sense
And I am quickened with a redolence
Of farmland as a dark unblown rose.
Wait then…breasting the mist, in sowers' aprons,
My ghosts come striding into their spring stations.
The dream grain whirls like freakish Easter snows."
Here we are shown with lyrical beauty the everyday miracle of very early spring at Glanmore in Southern Ireland, where Heaney lived for a while with his family, away from the troubles in the North. Everyday language brings the fresh countryside to our eyes and ears: "...The mildest February for twenty years…mist bands over furrows…Our road is steaming…Now the good life could be to cross a field…"
But we are alerted in the first line that this is not just a description of a rural scene. Into the fourth line slides a Heaney-esque onomatopoeic surprise: the everyday deep silence is about to be disturbed; we can hear how the disturbance will be, in the rumbling consonants of the line: "Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors." Tension is there, in vulnerable and gargling (which happens in the throat, a way of staving off infection) and links onward to breathe (lungs, throat, mouth) in the next line. By now we are connected bodily with the poem, and caught up in the excitement of it. He likens art (his writing) to the gleaming earth churned up by the ploughing of a field, and maybe there is an echo here of a line in The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins (whose work Heaney loved in his youth):
"Sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine…"
In one of Heaney's best-known early poems, Digging, he describes how in childhood he sees his father turn the soil for potato-planting, and recalls his grandfather digging for turf, and tells us he too will dig for inspiration in his own way, as a poet: "Between my finger and my thumb//The squat pen rests./I'll dig with it."By line seven of the Glanmore sonnet, he has let us into the secret: this early spring carries his hopes of creative renewal. The fields of his mind are waiting to be ploughed and tilled, as the fields of his rural childhood in County Derry were ploughed and tilled for sowing, growth, nourishment, new life. He is quickened with the anticipation of digging new earth with his pen.
The ninth line holds two more surprises: an old Celtic word: plough-sock, meaning a ploughshare, and the verb gorge used with its old Middle-English sense of swallow (another throat word). Heaney's adroit exhumation and absorption of early English and dialect language are among the many pleasures of reading his poetry.
Beauty is a word often used in connection with Heaney the person as well as with his poetry. The last three lines of this sonnet exemplify the Nobel judges' lyrical beauty. A wonderful new music plays us out of the fourteen-line experience. Wait then...he commands us. Be still. Patience. Look. Listen.So we wait, and then he magics out of the mist his ghosts of the past and present, energetic beings, "striding into their Spring stations," like figures in a mediaeval Book of Hours, tossing seeds from the pockets of their farmers' aprons into the new-ploughed land. We hear the dream grain hissing in the sibilance of the words. Then, at the very end, after all the vigour and the promise of fertility, there is the hint of chill, a whiteness, in the "freakish Easter snows." Nothing, not even the resurrection of new life, is certain.
Heaney's death – at the age of 74 – was not expected so soon, and there was an extraordinary outpouring of grief for the man and the poet, in the press and on the internet, especially in the United States where he worked for many years, and in Ireland where he was born, lived, died and was buried. Tributes came in from all over the world, from all kinds of people. No one had a bad word to say of him. At his funeral Paul Muldoon spoke of Heaney's "signal ability to make each of us feel connected not only to him but to one another." The poet Maurice Riordan declared: "It's the felling of a great oak".
Literary celebrity is fragile. After death there is a hagiological phase, and then a writer's reputation will tend to sag as the generation of readers which grew up with the work, and rejoiced in it, dies too. Then that work must stand up to the scrutiny of the next generation, for whom the resonances will be strange, and the immediacy not enmeshed into its own youthful consciousness. This is where the durability of a poet's lifework is tested: does it carry a sufficiency of universal concerns to override the topicality for example of its politics, or its social attitudes, or its vocabulary? For all his prizes and popularity, there's no knowing whether Heaney's work will be as venerated in 2113 as it is now.
There are some haunting lines in Tae the Fates by the Scots poet Kathleen Jamie:
"…but gin ah could mak whit's halie
an maist dear tae me – ane perfect poem
I'll welcome the cauld, the quate mirk."
[but if I could make what's holy
and most dear to me – one perfect poem
I'll welcome the cold, the quiet dark]
"…ane perfect poem…" Perfection – like beauty – is subjective, of course. It is in the eye of the viewer and the ear of the listener. For me, Seamus Heaney's poems hit the jackpot of perfection more often than those of any poet's in the last hundred years. In his Nobel lecture, he quoted one of his own best poems. It is called Exposure, and it is partly an apology for not taking any particular political side in the troubles of his country; in another way it wittily and self-deprecatingly celebrates what he believes in most: the certainties that are eternal, the diamond absolutes. Here is an extract:
"Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows."