Posts Tagged ‘nobel address’

Teach me now to listen

August 30, 2013

To strike it rich behind the linear black.

– Seamus Heaney, Clearances

When I learned this morning that Seamus Heaney had passed away, just before the start of my first class of the day, I felt a kind of devastation. I say “a kind of” because as much as I love the man and his work and what it has done for my life of the mind, and for the world, it isn’t the same kind of devastation as losing a father, or a brother, or a best friend, all of which I have lost.

And yet it was a devastation nonetheless. Seamus Heaney was the first poet whose work I sought out on my own. He was the first poet I recognized as important not because a teacher told me so but because my own instinct screamed it at me. His work, and that of his fellow Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, had a profound effect on the decisions I made in college to major in English, concentrate in Irish Studies, get an M.A. in the same with the intent to get a Ph.D., then say “hang it all” and get an M.F.A. instead. One of the essays I wrote for my M.F.A. Comprehensive Exam spent quite a lot of time talking about Heaney’s contribution to the tradition of the sonnet in English.

While I have lamented some of my choices in academics here and there, there has never been a moment in my life that I have regretted picking up any of Heaney’s books and losing myself in the humbly glorious language.

There are an awful lot of things I could try to say about Heaney but I don’t want to delve into the kind of academic speak I have more or less left behind and I’m afraid I would. This morning I thought, briefly, about trying to read one of his poems aloud to my students, who, despite having received a stellar high school English education to date, had a 100% “never heard of him” rate. But then I realized if I did I would probably break down, at least a bit, before I got to the end of it. There’d be no coming back from that in front of students in the first week of their senior year. Instead I left them with the brief anecdote of hearing him read twice while in undergrad, and having a few minutes of interaction with him the second time, and how he took a moment to sign my copy of his selected poems while he had a jumbo shrimp dangling from his mouth. I don’t offer this anecdote to be glib or to denigrate him in any way; I think it was awfully decent of him to take the time to inscribe a book to some dumb undergrad who was chirping at him about poetry and how he wanted to be a poet. He would’ve had every right to tell me to go away, but if there’s anything you keep hearing about Heaney today, it’s how approachable, how humble he was. Let’s reiterate this moment; a Nobel Laureate had no free hand to hold a pen to sign some annoying undergrad’s book, so he freed up a hand just to sign it. How many Nobel Laureates would do that? Frankly I’m not sure how many Laureates I’d want to ask to do that, but that’s a separate issue.

In the end I will quote not one of his poems, because I don’t know how I could choose, but from his Nobel lecture. I keep returning to this lecture and to this paragraph in general, because it says a lot of what I believe about why I consciously choose to engage in certain traditions.

“Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.”


Part of writing, part of living any kind of examined life, is choosing your values. We have a tendency to be perhaps either too mutely accepting or too nihilistically dismissive of those values or beliefs that are in some way native to us, to what is handed to us or what we grow up with. Either is bad, but Heaney asks us to do the work of looking for that in our local, clannish, backwards existences which is good. Identifying that good, lifting it out, is the first step to carrying it forward and outward into the world. Heaney did that in his poetry for nearly fifty years. I’m hesitant to believe the rest of the world will ever follow his lead, but if we ever are, the poetry will be there, showing us how.