When Great Poets Die

This blog appreciates poetry and laments the loss of remarkable poets.

Maya Angelou, herself a great soul, wrote:

Seamus-HeaneyWhen great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Those words seem a fitting elegy for Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet and Nobel Prize winner, who died Friday at the age of 74. Poet Robert Lowell called him the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.

The Irish have two great artistic traditions, music and poetry. Although some might argue there is a third, the art of drinking. I like to think that the Irish (and I count myself as one) have made great music because they love to dance, usually while drinking, and they have written great poetry, because every true Irishman has a gift for the blarney.

Contemporary Irish music and poetry has had little to do with blarney, though. Rather, it’s been a product of an affection for the beauty of the earth, and a reaction to the affliction of blood and strife that has troubled Ireland for so long. And while that would characterize a good portion of Heaney’s works, his poetry held much more. In presenting Heaney with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Östen Sjöstrand, member of the Swedish Academy, noted “it must be said that Seamus Heaney never reduces reality to a matter of political slogans, he writes about the fates of individuals, of personal friends who have been afflicted by the heedless violence – in the background somewhere there is Dante, who could yoke the political to the transcendental.”

The Nobel committee awarded Heaney the prize “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past,”  which describes his work far better than I ever could.

And when great souls die . . .
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

The Cure at Troy is Heaney’s adaption in verse of Sophocles’ tragedy Philoctetes. Here is an excerpt:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

– – – – – – – – – –

Excerpt of “When Great Trees Fall” from I Shall Not Be Moved, Maya Angelou, Random House, 1990

Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’s PhiloctetesFaber & Faber in assoc. with Field Day, 1990