Out of Grief Comes Seamus Heaney’s Poetry
by Estelle Shanley Sun Staff
Lowell – Seamus Heaney responds to applause.
“Actually," he admitted coyly to his audience at Lowell university on Friday night, “narcissism has its own reward.”
His eyes disappear into slits of merriment and he declares that aside from sexual jealousy, literary jealousy is probably the most demented dimension. Again, the applause, and Ireland's most acclaimed contemporary poet, and poet in residence at Harvard University, recites verse that transcends the provincial narrowness of his native county Derry, and even rises above the corrupt surroundings in Ulster.
But, while he manages to transcend the horror and devastation in Northern Ireland, he also demonstrates a capacity to absorb the atrocities and to recreate them as poetry. This happens particularly in his more recent work..
The resulting verse, although devoid of bitterness, is crowded by thorns of grief and loss, particularly “The Strand at Lough Beg,” a poem dedicated to the memory of his cousin, Colum McCartney, who was returning from a football game in Dublin on August evening, and was shot dead in his car near Dublin en route to his home in Armagh.
Heaney recited the poem in his one-night-only appearance in Lowell, and imagined the washing of his cousin's corpse. It is a poem that reads more like a right of healing, than a vessel filled with bitterness.
“I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes
They kneel in front of you in brimming glass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash your cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as a drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat
With rushes that shoot green again I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.”
Heaney no longer lives in Ulster, and insists that he moved to the Republic of Ireland in the early seventies, not to escape the bloody conflict, but rather to commit his life to writing full time. In so doing he gave up his teaching job at Queens University in Belfast and lived with his wife and three children in a borrowed bungalow in Wicklow. There he wrote, making a living by reading his works on television and radio and lecturing in Ireland universities, and educational institutions abroad.
In Ireland, the poet has been accused by his critics of ignoring in his work the crisis in Northern Ireland, and in 1975, perhaps as an institute that criticism he published “North,“ a book of poems that shows a continuing preoccupation with the political strife. The police, the British Army, rioting children, journalists, prison camps, poverty and devastation come to the forefront of Heaney’s verse.
In an interview he admits to the criticism, but immediately ponders the question about the real function of art. He is uncertain, for example, about the role of the artist in a time of crisis.
“Because Bobby Sands fasted himself to death, does that mean there should be a poem written about him?” he asks, and mulling over his own question, answers it by discussing the role of French painter Henri Matisse.
During the Second World War, Matisse painted still life, landscapes and brilliantly illuminated interiors. “Matisse was actually criticized, because he painted beautiful pictures of apples and other fruit at a time where there were concentration camps,” explained Heaney.
Photographs of those camps triggered horror and distress in people 40 years later, but Heaney stressed that Matisse’s pictures proclaimed a certain continuity of humanity, humane of life.
“Perhaps that is the function of the poet,” he philosophized, adding “but of course, there is the danger that you can shut your eyes to the inhumanity, but I suppose as long as you can put images into focus, in intelligent defiance, that is one way of coping”