Seamus Heaney has died. It’s strange to feel like it’s “early” for him to die, given that he was 74 and wrote for 50 years, but in a world of Stanley Kunitzes and Ruth Stones, it still feels unfair. Can’t we keep all our poets for a century now? Isn’t that part of the devil’s deal we’ve struck for trying to destroy the planet, the publishing industry, and higher education?
There are so many poems I love by Heaney. His poetry is magnetic: you read more than three words and you are inside it, unable to turn away. Deceptively straightforward verse structures and syntax let you glide through his remarkable, Anglo-Saxon-tinged diction, so that by the end of a poem you feel in your whole body that you’ve experienced something powerful and risky. As a poet, I’m also wildly impressed and jealous of that most enviable gift: the perfect final line.
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name. (St Kevin and the Blackbird)
I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing. (Personal Helicon)
A four foot box, a foot for every year. (Mid-Term Break)
Goddammit, Heaney! Teach me how to do that!
I think my favorite Heaney poems might be his “Bog People” poems, which appear in North (and Opened Ground, of course — currently top of Amazon’s Movers & Shakers list, as well it should be). These poems are about the mummified corpses, understood to be human sacrifices, discovered in the bogs of Northern Europe. Their bodies are astonishingly well preserved, thanks to the chemistry of the peat bogs. You’ve no doubt seen pictures of them, spooky as hell: the Tollund Man’s face is so emotionally legible that he was mistaken for a recent murder victim, not a 2300-year-old corpse. Heaney meditates on that contradiction, how recognizable these ancient people are, in a series of poems that I cannot recommend enough. (I mean, honestly, just buy Opened Ground if you haven’t already, is my true recommendation.) My favorite, perhaps unsurprisingly given my feministy soul, is “Punishment“:
before they punished you
you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,
I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur
of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:
Read the rest. I don’t know that I have anything to say about this poem besides that I love it enormously. And perhaps that all poets are “artful voyeurs” of the brains of others, and Heaney’s poem reminds us to be humble in the face of time’s trust in words.
Rest in peace, Seamus Heaney. I hope you really do get to meet Joyce’s ghost in some Irish heaven.