Maybe you’ve heard by now that Seamus Heaney died today. Maybe you know his poetry yourself, or maybe you’ve only heard of him because I’ve been posting lines and whole poems from him for years here on the blog. Last March, Heaney came to Emory for a reading and I was lucky enough to meet him and snap a quick photo with him in addition to hearing him read. When I posted the pic on Facebook, several of my friends asked who he was. So I explained, in brief, that he was a Noble Prize-winning Northern Irish poet, and that he was my favorite.
But that’s not all he was. Google his name today and you’ll find moving tributes from his friends and admirers. This one from The Irish Times is especially good, I think. He was important, and his poetry is important, on a broad, international scale. And his poetry is important, too, for individuals like my friend Susan, Heaney is the person who taught her to love Beowulf.
For me, Heaney is the person who taught me love poetry. I had always liked poetry, even though I often found it a bit bewildering–which made me shy away from writing about it usually. And when I settled on Irish literature as my general research field for my master’s thesis, I initially thought I would write on Joyce and/or Yeats, or some other Revivalist (that’s early 20th century, before the 1920s). But Heaney waylaid those plans. The more I read of his work, the more I wanted to read. In the end, there wasn’t really a moment when I decided to write my thesis about his work. His poetry decided for me, and I did my best to follow where it led.
Some of you will know that writing that thesis was formative for me in some important ways–namely, it’s what made me believe in my own writing and ideas, what made me believe that I could and maybe should go on to get my PhD. In large part, that’s due to my amazing thesis director, but it’s also because of Heaney’s poetry. I like to think of literary scholarship as a conversation with a text. I ask my questions in hushed tones and the text whispers back, telling me its secrets and asking me questions in return. And as I read and read and read Heaney’s poems and sounded my voice off of the page margins, they opened up for me in ways that no other poetry had. That gave me confidence in myself as a scholar.
And more than that, his poetry taught me to see the world differently. Because for Heaney, who wrote many poems in response to the conflict in Northern Ireland, political unrest is never separate from the human beings involved. It’s not political groups or parties or factions that he writes about, the nameless, faceless They. It’s individuals with faces and forms and bodies. He humanizes the conflict, and that changed how I understood it, and other, similar violent conflicts.
So when people ask me why I love Heaney’s poetry, I usually say that it’s beautiful and meaningful and important. But that’s only the short answer.