I suppose if I really think about it there are valid reasons why I pushed Irish poetry and writing away. My parents were talking about Heaney last night and with every reminiscence, there was a reference to an event from the Troubles. Together with John Hume, for my parents, I think Heaney represented their voices at a time when they couldn't speak. Coming from the same mid-Ulster area, same type of socio-economic background. The way my parents talked about him, it was as if they'd been to school with him. Indeed, the priest who baptised me was in Heaney's class at St. Columb's.
For me though, Heaney represented a towering block, a Granddad like figure that I couldn't seem to force myself to like, or to appreciate. A few years ago I read an Introduction to an anthology of Irish writing where the female editor played around with the Heaney quote, "whatever you say, say nothing" to illustrate how women and women writers in Ireland/Northern Ireland are merely submissive figures. And I suppose I latched onto that, immaturely.
So I was surprised to feel like the wind had been knocked out of me yesterday. And reading all the articles and memoirs, seeing quotes from poems I didn't think I knew but somehow did know... When I read lines like the following, from 'Squarings' and think about my best friend who is strong like the Causeway and has that wild force that is beyond possibility. And the ugly but stunning beauty of the Antrim coast.
When you sat, far-eyed and cold, in the basalt throne
Of “the wishing chair” at Giant’s Causeway,
The small of your back made sense of the firmament.
Like a papoose at sap-time strapped to a maple-tree,
You gathered force out of the world-tree’s hardness.
If you stretched your hand forth, things might turn to stone.
But you were only goose-fleshed skin and bone,
The rocks and wonder of the world were only
Lava crystallized, salts of the earth
The wishing chair gave savour to, its kelp
And ozone sharpening your outlook
Beyond the range of possibility.
The way I feel about some of these words, and others, has been written hundreds of times in the last 24hours. It's like Heaney is able to take the big things and make them small, take them into your home and your heart. I'm confused at myself and ashamed that I have acted like such a precocious snob in overlooking Heaney. Or getting wrapped up in the emotion of it all, enjoying the national mourning that Ireland does so well that I'm happily lolling around in my Northern Irish/Irishness/whatever-ness just to be part of something?
One thing I am sure of however is that the link between Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney is strong. I spent this afternoon re-reading 'The Indefatigable Hoof-taps: Sylvia Plath', which Heaney wrote as part of his 1986 TS Eliot lecture series. It is an excellent essay where Heaney outlines what he believes to be Plath's strengths and weaknesses as a poet. As he was such good friends with Ted Hughes, I've often wondered how much that friendship had to do with the concluding parts of this essay because it seems like Heaney makes what I feel are simplistic judgements on her poetry - after writing a series of wonderfully thoughtful and detailed sections on Plath's artistic abilities. Judging 'Edge' as "a suicide note, to put it extremely" (165) and patronizing her work citing "youth" and "unbearable duress" as reasoning behind her apparent extremism, it strikes me that Heaney's criticism of Plath may have been better served if he considered the 1963 poems as a completely separate "phase" than her 1962 works. It seems impossible to me to compare 'Lady Lazarus' and 'Edge' as part of the same outburst of creativity.
However, 'The Indefatigable Hoof-taps' is a beautiful essay. Looking at my previous annotations, I've written the word "beautiful" five times throughout. Heaney appreciated Plath and I loved that he has the insight to compare her final poems to Ezra Pound as well as the line where he talks about "what is exciting to observe in this poem ['Elm'] is the mutation of voice; from being a relatively cool literary performance, aware of its behaviour and as a stand-in for a tree, it gradually turns inwards and intensifies" (162). Tim Kendall remarked that Plath and Heaney share a kindred poetic spirit because they transform/use alternative methods of language to encounter issues they both felt were problematic. I really agree with this and think it's so apparent in much of Heaney's output. I posted a youtube video of 'Blackberry Picking' on Twitter yesterday and feel that poem is so Plathian and that there is so much else going on in the piece than the surface words alone.
Since I learned of Heaney's passing, there has been a strange hole in my heart. It feels like Ireland is off-kilter, or that a lynch-pin has been removed from the motor/the heart of the country. Really, what Seamus Heaney has given me, as someone from Tyrone with an interest in poetry, is stability. Maybe that's a strange choice of word. But when you grow up being taught Heaney in school, when his home place is 40mins up the road from your home place, poetry doesn't feel so far away. You read in feminist criticism books about the struggle women felt coming to writing. But for me, whether it was the odd attempt at creative writing or going off to University to study English and not even blinking an eye, I know it was Heaney who paved the way. I may have felt in awe of his huge force and legacy, but never uninvited. Along with Patrick Kavanagh, to know that someone else came from the same boggy part of the world as you and had a claim on letters was very important and necessary. For that, and the words, thank you very much Seamus Heaney. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.