By Michael Brosnan
The Poetry Foundation’s brief biography of poet Seamus Heaney includes a reference to a review of Heaney’s collected essays, “Finders Keepers,” that appeared in the London Sunday Times. The review author, John Carey, says that Heaney’s book “is not just another book of literary criticism…. It is a record of Seamus Heaney’s thirty-year struggle with the demon of doubt. The questions that afflict him are basic. What is the good of poetry? How can it contribute to society? Is it worth the dedication it demands?”
I mention this in part because these are central questions that I ask myself — of my own writing and that other poets. As pressing as the questions may have been for Heaney, they seem even weightier for poets like me — that is, poets who have been writing for years without attract the kind of attention that our “star” poets garner. We are in the game. We have a book or two or three. We have published numerous poems in literary journal. But we don’t connect much with readers and we don’t see the ways in which our poetry resonates (or not) with the world.
I’m not writing this to say woe is me or that I deserve more attention. I’m simply saying it’s a tangle of comfort and shock that one of our Nobel Prize-winning poets would feel this way late in his career.
I mention Heaney mostly because I just finished reading a posthumously published collection of his poems, 100 Poems, selected by his family. I don’t usually care for collected editions. But what’s so appealing about this collection is that it traces the growth of Heaney’s sensibilities and professional skills as a writer, starting with the iconic poem, “Digging,” written with the bravado of a young writer taking his stand at the start of a literary career, and ending with “In Time,” a beautiful tribute to his granddaughter written shortly before his death in 2013.
Heaney is famous for the lyrical beauty of his poems. When I read his work, I feel inspired, moved, and a bit dumb, needing to turn to a dictionary every few minutes — for words like tenebrous, deliquesce, and chthonic, and all the Irish place names or moments in Irish history. If nothing else, you know you are in the hands of dedicated, hard-working, knowledgeable, caring, place-anchored poet.
But of course, Heaney is far more than all this. Given my own Irish heritage, his work helps me understand what it meant to be Irish and Northern Irish during the turbulent years of the 1960s-1970s. He helped me understand what it means to be part of the history of long-repressed people surviving for centuries while working close to the land and developing their own culture and sense of community — surviving as best they can, that with little more than their wits. Such understanding rises through the careful arrangement of details and language, of meter and rhyme. The beauty of the landscape, the challenge of survival, the heartache of life close to the bone, the tension between religious repression and religious comfort, the gorgeous endangered language, the complexity woven into the “simple” way of life, the war of neighbor on neighbor, pikes vs. guns and canons, the rain, the rain, the bogs, the rain, the long-drawn out history of being stuck and yet finding a way through — it’s all here, and more.
I can’t say which poems touched me the most, but I came close to crying reading, “Requiem for the Croppies” and “Casualty,” and felt that pang of connection in “The Peninsula” and “Postscript.” And in so many of the poems, you feel both Heaney’s love of his nations (Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland) and yet his disconnect from so many of the people. I’m thinking particularly of “Westerly” and “Alphabets.” Then, in case you feel a bit too removed from life in rural Ireland, in Station Island Heaney goes and writes numerous poems that embody the spirit of the people.
Does poetry matter? Is it worth the effort? Sometimes I despair over these questions, in part because the answer can feel like “no” some days. But then you enter poems like “Anahorish” and “The Given Note” and “The Gravel Walks” and you know the world would be worse off without them. While it’s probably always going to be true that most of humanity won’t read books of poetry, or read only the occasional poem, I have to believe that poetry — like the rest of the humanities — will always matter. I suppose I just wish it meant more to all of us today.
About the struggle of writing, Heaney wrote, “You are confirmed by the visitation of the last poem and threatened by the elusiveness of the next one.”
I am so glad he didn’t turn away from the work. Maybe for Heaney, there was no choice. In “The Badger,” he writes, “How perilous is it to choose/Not to love the life we’re shown.”