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Seamus Heaney: A Work of Public Art

SEAMUS HEANEY is recognised as one of the major poets in any language of the 20th Century.

A native of south Derry, he was raised outside the small village of Bellaghy in County Derry, and later lived for many years in Dublin. He was the author of more than 20 volumes of poetry, criticism and translation, edited several landmark anthologies, including The Rattlebag (1982, with Ted Hughes) and was also an acclaimed playwright. In 1995, he joined Yeats, Shaw and Beckett as Irish recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, as his citation put it: “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” Heaney served as the Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1989 to 1994, was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University from 1984 to 1995 and Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence there until 2006, reaffirming his standing as one of the few indispensable elements in world literature. The enduring excellence of his work into his last years was recognised by his receipt of the TS Eliot Prize in 2006 for District and Circle (2006), the David Cohen Prize (2009) and the Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Achievement Award (2012). He died in 2013, his passing marked by tributes from President Higgins, former US President Clinton and José Manuel Barroso, then President of the European Commission, as well as from a multitude of public and private figures worldwide.

None of the above, however, as we know well, even comes close to capturing the depth or breadth of Heaney’s influence in Ireland, not only in the arts but in civic and humane terms. And in this room, at this time, the loss of that force is most keenly felt, because this is exactly the type of occasion which would have drawn out from the great poet the most apt phrase, that blend of the mystic visionary with the cattle-dealers’ pragmatism, the perfect capture of feeling across the cultures which would be both unique and inclusive; the warm and full expression of all that is best in us. What we are left with now in the arts and culture is best described in the essay in this volume by Prof Roy Foster as a “luminous emptiness”.

From his stunning debut volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), through the subsequent four collections, Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), North (1975) and Field Work (1979), each extending his imaginative reach into whole new territories of the aesthetic, civic and political imagination, Heaney became the acknowledged curator of the principal power of poetry to engage, move and delight, not only among the traditional literary community worldwide, but pre-eminently among a vast public who responded to his earthy lyricism and skill in uncovering wonder in the everyday through successive generations of readerships.

The volume of the tributes paid to this man and his work, 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.

In the decades of his unique career and through the decades of the Troubles, when the townlands and towns of Ireland 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 – into the world’s lexicon of familiar places.

At one time here, as most here know better than me, when the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement was being negotiated, there was a regular call for what became known at the time as a ‘form of words’; a formula or series of them, in fact, which could accommodate important and divergent readings; compromise, if you like, but without deeply-felt principles being themselves compromised. It was a tall order in any language; but it was achieved. Maybe only in Ireland, though, would that achievement have to be repeated over and over and over again, as time has passed; a renewal of agreement, a redefining of disagreement, again the gutsy and persistent application to words which has, more than once, drawn us back from stand-off and back into our common and shared selves in this landscape.

I think of Heaney’s work as engaged in a similarly consistent and, as it happened, lifelong commitment to that search for ‘a form of words’ which might accurately describe our several conditions on this island, keeping the channels open at the boundaries for the potential and even the begrudged handshake across the hedge or gate.

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 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.

That universality is handsomely captured in this splendid tribute volume from Irish Pages, which gathers formal salutes from fellow artists as well as from major literary and cultural figures of our time, from Helen Vendler, Colm Toibin, Fintan O’Toole and Roy Foster to Robert Pinsky, President Higgins and Patricia Craig, among many others, uniquely illustrated, it has to be said, by photographic studies of the poet and his family, formal, candid and extraordinary, through the lens of Bobbie Hanvey.

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 authenticity of their language, to engage the heart as universally and as deeply as this big man from Bellaghy. And it is a tribute to the force of this global figure in his intimate roots among us that, this time next year, we will see the opening of the magnificent brand new Interpretative Centre in his honour raised like a spaceship in his home village.

Even so, it is difficult to put into words and to convey fully how intimately his person and his poetry became and remains bound up with the life of the people, in Northern Ireland and especially in the Republic of Ireland; how deeply he had become embedded in the affection of the people and in the life of the society – as no artist has ever quite achieved before. He had an extraordinary place in the public realm.

But that place in the public realm, his presence at state and solemn occasions was not as a symbol of state or as part of state but as a reminder to state of the importance of values, of the challenge of office, of the meaning of society, of the responsibility of leadership to the people, of the place of conscience. Through his life and through his poetry he spoke to the people. And the people listened.

He knew the risks of that public role and expressed them. Writing in 1974, he said that “the idea of poetry as an art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram of political attitudes.” And in his Nobel speech, ‘Crediting Poetry’, he spoke of “having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of political violence and public expectation. A public expectation, it has to be said, not of poetry as such but of political positions variously approvable by mutually disapproving groups.”

For him, it was simple. “The poet”, he said, “is on the side of undeceiving the world. It means being vigilant in the public realm.” He was intuitively trusted; his integrity appreciated; his directness reciprocated; his dignity sublime.

There were some comments subsequent to the poet’s death, amid the torrent of tributes, that time might be needed to reflect and consider his rank in the pantheon, his place in history; that occasions of remembrance and celebration, indeed, might be best limited from then on.

I profoundly disagree. There is no such thing as enough. Never enough delight, never enough wisdom, never enough simple gratitude on our part.

Today, this event is by way of marking the publication of this magnificent book which is another stone on the cairn of the poet’s legacy; but it is an opportunity for us all, once more, to consider the great human spirit, generated completely from among the ordinary people, to which the poet gave such memorable and eloquent voice.

Thank you, Chris Agee and the Irish Pages team. Thank you to the three distinguished sponsors of this event in Parliament Buildings. But thank you, most of all, to Bellaghy and Seamus Heaney.

These were remarks made at the launch of Irish Pages Vol 8 No 2 held in the Long Gallery, Stormont, in June 2015. The then Deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness MLA, was one of the sponsoring MLAs of the event.

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