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


Northern Poet

Seamus Heaney was born on this day in 1939. He is an Irish poet, playwright, translator, lecturer, and Nobel Prize winner (for Literature in 1995). Heaney was both the Harvard and the Oxford Professor of Poetry and in 1996 was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres.

He’s regarded as one of the finest poets of the twentieth century. Fellow poet Robert Lowell called him “the most important Irish poet since Yeats” and others, such as the British academic John Sutherland, have hailed Heaney as “the greatest poet of our age”.

In the essay published in Les Prix Nobel (The Nobel Prizes) 1995, states:

Heaney’s poems first came to public attention in the mid-1960s when he was active as one of a group of poets who were subsequently recognized as constituting something of a “Northern School” within Irish writing. Although Heaney is stylistically and temperamentally different from such writers as Michael Longley and Derek Mahon (his contemporaries), and Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson (members of a younger Northern Irish generation), he does share with all of them the fate of having be en born into a society deeply divided along religious and political lines, one which was doomed moreover to suffer a quarter-century of violence, polarization and inner distrust. This had the effect not only of darkening the mood of Heaney’s work in the 1970s, but also of giving him a deep preoccupation with the question of poetry’s responsibilities and prerogatives in the world, since poetry is poised between a need for creative freedom within itself and a pressure to express the sense of social obligation felt by the poet as citizen.

You can read more about Seamus Heaney here at Wikipedia, and in honor of National Poetry Month, you can read “Requiem for the Croppies,” about the 1798 Rebellion, right here.

“Croppies” was a term for United Irishmen who wore their hair close-cropped to mark their allegiance. Written in the voice of a dead croppy boy, the poem focues on the Battle of Vinegar Hill, where the rebels were defeated by the British and the bodies of 640 slaughtered insurgents were thrown into a mass grave and covered in quicklime. “Croppies Grave” is the  monument over the mass grave that commemorates their deaths.

Heaney wrote “Requiem for the Croppies”  in 1966 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916. However, as Neil Corcoran says in Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber), “Heaney celebrates not the Rising itself but what he considers its original seed in the rebellion of 1798.”

Requiem for the Croppies

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.