Seamus Heaney, perhaps the greatest Irish poet – and certainly the Irish poet receiving the most renown – since W.B. Yeats, has passed. I personally owe Heaney a debt of gratitude, mostly for exemplifying that to which we all aspire but call by different names.
And what could be more fitting as tribute to the Nobel-laureate’s amazing accomplishments than exploring the naming of human aspirations. For some, it’s success; for others, bliss. I prefer the simple term happiness, but these are words that only map the personal. Whether it’s success, bliss or happiness, each is different for each individual.
This is what too often the bitter and angry forget to recognize when they believe their aspirations unrealized. These individuals and groups have skewed the concepts of success too often, in my opinion, to mean simply financial rewards and, further, finances that are equitably distributed. We each of us pursue what makes us happy, which isn’t always a fat paycheck. Not all of us aspire to amass great wealth. For example, I’d rather live in a Lake District cottage filled with good books than a mansion with a fleet of Maseratis and Lamborghinis in the garage. To each his or her own, but you shouldn’t earn a degree in English with the expectation Engineering majors will subsidize your education choice after college.
Bliss and wealth take many forms beyond the economic. Following my own bliss led me to college to broaden the passion for literature in general and poetry in particular with which I had been generously instructed by two teachers in high school. One, a nun nearing retirement, pushed me to Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare; the other, a free spirited recent college grad who may or may not have been considered a hippy at the time, loaned me his Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and private journals. He also loaned me his Bob Dylan albums, and helped me edit my very first newspaper theater critique in the summer of 1975.
But it was in college that my reading of poetry really blossomed. Fortunately, I was surrounded by those who understood my goal in life wasn’t for financial wealth, but instead a wealth of knowledge – a specialized knowledge, to be sure, but a knowledge that combined history, science, philosophy and, yes, economics all combined artistically in free verse, iambic pentameter, classical structures and Modernist experimentation.
Heaney was master of all the above and more. I chanced upon an anthology of his first four poetry collections at a used bookstore, and used the first volume as a basis for a paper due in a creative writing class. That very same paper was the writing sample required for my first post-graduate employment at a literary reference-book company. Fortunately, the editor who hired me also was a fan of Heaney’s work, and I was well on my way – not quite to fame or fortune, but, again, toward my own happiness in direct opposition to the advice proffered by the buffoonish Mr. Nixon in Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:”
The tip’s a good one, as for literature
“It gives no man a sinecure.”
And no one knows, at sight a masterpiece.
And give up verse, my boy,
There’s nothing in it.”
I, like thousands if not millions of his fans, first seized upon Heaney’s poetry for its deconstruction of bucolic romanticism in favor of depictions of rural life that were far more true to the agricultural upbringing of my youth: “Still, living displaces false sentiments/And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown/I just shrug….” This stoicism also permeates the volumes of poetry in which Heaney explores the Irish “troubles.”
Finally, it’s to be remembered Heaney – regardless his successes as a college lecturer, critic, and reciter of his and others’ poetry – apparently loved being a poet, which itself is a measure of success on his own terms. “Digging,” another poem from his first volume, sums up the very nature of writing poetry as work:
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Work, in other words, as a poet is as difficult as the skills required for working the soil. But the yield of such work as the result of honing one’s craft, for Heaney, is equally gratifying.
And hone his craft he did, producing a myriad of perfect pieces of poetic art, including a best-selling, critically acclaimed “translation” of that Old English adventure yarn, “Beowulf.” Heaney corralled both his talents and energies to produce a body of poetic work that will stand the test of time, which he did on his own terms. As a result, the individuals who followed his career are wealthier – a wealth measured not in dollars or cents, but in the sense Heaney’s art enriched our professional and personal lives.