There are moments in our lives when the immeasurable distances between people, between cultures and continents, between generations, seem to shrink to a single point of contact, and we can intimately feel what once was far away. Occasionally, this startling closeness comes in times of joy. I remember watching a broadcast of an entire Italian village celebrating their country’s World Cup victory in the street, and feeling a sense of camaraderie and connection to their joy, because it reminded me of similar experiences I’d had in the States. It’s a momentary sense of kinship; a short, electrifying burst of empathetic happiness.
But there are also times when this sudden closing of gaps feels less like a short burst of energy, and more like a slow, incessant rumble of sadness, grief. A tangible hurt for something very far away.
Before embarking on the third and final leg of my 2,000-mile journey across the country, I opened an email from a friend. My eyes jumped to the words “Saddened by the loss of Seamus Heaney today,” and then just as quickly looked away. I was in the passenger seat, and without any explanation to my driving partner, I sat in silence for the first four hours of the trip, my eyes blank as the gorgeous Colorado landscape passed outside my window. It was clear to him that my mind was somewhere else. Instead of seeing the pine-clad Rockies shift into red rock canyons as we headed South and West, I saw green farmland turn to rugged Irish coastline, as if headed North to Belfast. And instead of hearing Lupe Fiasco rhyme about his home on Chicago’s Westside over the car’s speakers, I heard Seamus Heaney—one of the world’s greatest poets, Ireland’s Poet Laureate, and a Nobel Prize winner— going on about his boyhood home in County Derry. It may have been the vibration of the motor, but I think it was that thrum of sadness coming close.
I can’t blame you if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Poetry books don’t often make the New York Times Bestseller list, and most American public schools sputter out little more than a three-week unit on Robert Frost and, if you’re lucky, William Wordsworth. Most people I know with a love for poetry acquired it through some serendipitous combination of a random, jaw-dropping encounter and formal, intensive study. In order to truly and fully love poetry, I think one must be both blown away by its mystery, and studiously involved in deciphering its technicality.
My jaw-unhinging moment came during my Sophomore year of college while lounging in my dorm room, when an upperclassmen, English major-friend read Heaney’s “Digging” aloud. See: (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177017) , or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yO_12-e5FTY
The first stanza struck me like an arrow from a bow, and its been lodged between my ribs ever since. “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests: snug as a gun.” The poem is the first in his debut collection called Death of a Naturalist, released in 1966. A country boy from Northern Ireland, this is the young and unknown Seamus stepping into the Irish poetic conversation with a bold a declaration of his arrival.
Here I am. Listen close, he seems to say. And then he goes on, painting a vivid image of his rural upbringing with the luscious sensory imagery that would become his trademark. He welcomes us to see what he saw as a boy: his father and grandfather, day in and day out, “going down and down/ for the good. Digging.” This is where I come from, he could be saying. Where the good men dig. The reverence with which Heaney speaks of his ancestors and their humble vocation, and of the land where he was born and bred, is the thread that binds the poet’s entire canon. You can take the poet from the land, but you can’t take the land from the poet. But then he acknowledges, without shame, precisely what he doesn’t have: “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”
And then he shifts to tell us, without a trace of fear, what he does have. The final stanza reads, “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it.” This is all I have, but I can make the most of it. If it’s a thread of reverence that binds his work, it’s this spark of boldness—this certainty of purpose, this fearlessness—that sets the words on fire. It’s what keep them burning in my mind.
As the Poet Laureate of Ireland, Heaney inherited the role of the political and social commentator amidst the “The Troubles” in the 70’s and early 80’s, but nonetheless remained rooted in his vocation as an artist first; as a voice of beauty and music, rather than one of conflict or polarity. In North, his most politically-minded collection, he affirms his presence once and for all.
“Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis,
in the long foray
but no cascade of light
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.”
He reminds himself of his true purpose, despite the encroaching darkness. Expect those blips of light in darkness, but not an everlasting daylight. At least not in this life; not yet.
But Seamus isn’t just asserting his own purpose; he’s reminding everyone to be true to their call, to what they know is good and beautiful. As the anointed poet of a country where turmoil and suffering are written in the soil of its history, he knew this all too well. And yet he affirmed the light until his dying breath.
And this is why his death feels close. This is why writing this feels like writing about a family member, rather than a man born on a different continent, into a vastly different culture, with vastly different conflicts. Because in digging deep into the rocky soil of an afflicted Ireland, he uprooted universal truths. Because he knew that his only way to dig was with his pen, and he did so until his dying breath. And just as he learned from his father, and from his father’s father, so we can learn from Seamus. Dig with what you have.
According to the Associated Press, Seamus sent a text message to his wife Marie a few minutes before his final breath, which said in his beloved Latin, “Noli timere.” Translation: Don’t be afraid.