A Mighty Force
LET'S HOPE that legislators and communicators take note over the next few days of what that tired old phrase "the impact of the arts" really means. Seamus Heaney was the prime practitioner of the most refined artform of all, the one which is, supposedly, the least accessible, most difficult, 'intellectual' and most opaque.
Yet the volume of the tributes paid to this man and his work since his death yesterday, from world leaders to his own neighbours, from readers across the globe in the many languages into which his work was painstakingly translated, to those who cherish perhaps just one line about hope and history rhyming or a whole poem like 'Mid-Term Break' because it illuminates the ordinary in a spectacularly vivid and memorable way, are testament to the value not just of poetry, but of the arts as a whole.
Right through the decades of his unique career and through the decades of our Troubles, when townlands and towns were being namechecked on news bulletins with dismay and grief, Heaney's imagination was busy installing little sites of love and disarray – Toome, Mossbawn, Broagh, Glanmore, Castledawson – deep into the world's lexicon of familiar places.
As his imagination deepened and broadened through the 1970s and 1980s and his artistic ambition repeatedly found new technical resources at hand to accommodate political, historical and mythic themes, Heaney remained ever a gracious social individual, true to his farming roots and the simple decencies of human commerce, mirroring in his everyday self the delicate precisions of accuracy and negotiation which are the core ethics of his art.
This poet found a way to evoke common childhood perception, family allegiance, to revivify old runic forms of challenge and exchange across the sectarian divide, which was so vivid, so close to the human bone, that there were readers found in every part of this globe; poems speaking in tongues but in that same luminous idiom he fashioned in his south Derry adolescence, occurring in villages like ours and unlike ours, as much as in the big, sophisticated urban centres and august universities where he was also so much at home.
Other poets and writers and artists have come to force during the multimedia age; none have managed through the artifice of things and through the palpable, gristly authenticity of their language, to engage the heart as universally and as deeply as this big man from Bellaghy.
I first read Heaney at school at 12. He has been a voice in my head ever since, a daily interrogator, not just in the nuances of poetry but in the manners and deportment of an artistic life. So what?
In a similar way, he was a visitor to many tens of thousands over the decades of his extraordinarily blessed life; in a multitude of languages; each new volume of verse with the character of an occasion; its contents rapidly plundered for the bright new thing, for one more of those strange areas of feeling which only Heaney could identify as new and uncharted and describe like an antique traveller. We have lived in the house of a truly important writer but we haven't yet been in all of its rooms. But death and time opens all the doors.
Seamus Heaney's virtues would be easily recognised by the very greatest writers in any language at any time.
Even his shortcomings are the deficits one finds in the big imaginations of history – they too will be documented by scholars in the decades to come as diligently as were Wordsworth's.
But in what we now know were his last years, his imagination was at ease with Dante and Homer and with the anonymous author of Beowulf and he began to narrate fearlessly, like Yeats, the fraility of the body, the evaluation of loss, the proximity of the Shrouds.
A great force has passed among us.
For a time, we were all brought close to the mythic values of the simple earth and its stuff, close to the miraculous visions of this actual world in front of us, however prosaic and mundane, and what lies, or may lie, just on that other side. What companionship. What a spirit guide. What love.
We are on our own now.
This piece first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 31 August 2013