Seamus Heaney, perhaps the most renowned Irish poet since W.B. Yeats, has passed. Heaney’s poetry won me over relatively early in life, for which I credit my own academic yearning, but as well the unfettered enthusiasm of educators with whom I was fortunate enough to travel the byways of poetry and prose. Lacking their freedom to parlay such knowledge without such contemporary folderol as teaching-to-the-test and career-readiness, my door to literary awareness would’ve been quite narrow indeed.
I personally owe Heaney a debt of gratitude, mostly for identifying what I believe exemplifies 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 called success; for others, bliss. I prefer the simple term happiness, but these are words that only map the personal. Whether it’s called success, bliss or happiness, each is different for every person.
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 don’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 in order 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’d probably be identified as 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 in college, and used the first volume as a basis for a paper due in a creative writing class. That very same paper was deployed as a 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 and certainly not to 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.
I read this poem today for what is at least the 100th time since my initial experience with it in college. As I practice my current craft and happy art as an ink-stained editor, I realize it was not just my innate inquisitiveness and aesthetic nature that led me to Heaney’s poetry. And it wasn’t just the wonderful and passion-fueled entrée to literature I received from an austere nun and bohemian teacher in high school. Those ingredients – and likewise the influence of my fellow students and university instructors – certainly played significant roles. But nothing could have booted the doors of knowledge and appreciation so wide and wildly off their respective hinges for me than an educational process that allowed teachers to actually teach and students to genuinely learn.