It has been more than half a century since Americans could claim a poet of true national stature—someone widely known, a voice whose words shaped the public mind and whose poems most school children had studied. And since that time, the habit of studying and committing poems to memory has largely vanished from schools. The reality is we live in an age that is largely post-poetry.
At the same time, for many of us, our experience tells us that poetry is surely a necessary component of the best culture. We need only one example to remind us of how vital poems are: Just think of how central they are to reading the scriptures, to the practice of liturgy, and to the power of good hymnody. Think of the beautiful metaphors and similes we love in the Psalms, where “mountains dance like rams,” and the “winds” are God’s “messengers” and “fire and flame” his “ministers.” Reflect on how Christ’s experience is illuminated by the lines from Psalm 22: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Reflect, too, on how the triumphant ending of that psalm anticipates the victory of the Cross: “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!”
Let’s agree that we need more of that kind of beautiful and passionate poetry in our lives, especially if it could press its way into our schools, family celebrations, and private reading and reflection. How do we stir up a love of poetry? There is no one answer, of course, but we might start by paying more attention to the Psalms since they already occupy an important place. As poems they help us feel and see what is true about our condition as God’s people. This is the case with the great psalmic metaphor “The Lord is my shepherd”: that transfer of meaning between two otherwise unconnected words—shepherd and Lord—makes us feel the psalmist’s experience of God’s care. Our culture is sorely in need of that vibrant language, the stirring imagery that would lift us from the parochial, homogeneous offerings that dominate our time.
What about great contemporary poets? Is anyone capable of capturing the American mind? I don’t know. But I do know that one recent poet caught the national mind of Ireland and was, more broadly, the greatest poet in the English language of the last few decades: the late great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. His poetry should, I believe, be a part of revitalizing our culture.
I was reminded of how effective his poems are at a recent VISIONS seminar Cana Academy held at the Hubbard Hill Retirement Community in Elkhart, Indiana. Many of the residents who attended remarked that they had long forgotten how to read poems; they’d also forgotten how a poem could make them think hard, feel more deeply about another person’s experience, and see something more clearly about our common humanity. For those who had once loved poetry, they were so delighted that the study of Heaney’s poems rekindled that love. For those who had little or no experience with poetry, they were happily surprised that they could actually understand and love poetry. Heaney got our attention and moved us to listen in more attentively to the sounds of our humanity, as poets ought to do.
We started the VISIONS program by discussing the use of metaphor in Psalm 23; then we visited some lines from Shakespeare and Robert Frost. Many in the audience called all three sources up from their pasts. Finally, we made our way to the poetry of Seamus Heaney. Again, his words caught us; they interrupted our normal way of seeing things and stirred in us a vision for who we are, and for the world around us. The way Heaney communicated his experience both resonated as true and stretched our imaginations so that we envisioned our own lives with a clearer light.
That experience in the VISIONS seminar confirmed a hunch I’ve had for some time: Seamus Heaney’s works are uniquely good for stirring things up among post-poetry Americans. So let’s take a closer look at Heaney’s life. Then, in next week’s post, we’ll take a close look at one of his poems and see how he looked at things and how he shared that vision with his readers. We’ll also take a stab at talking about one of his poems. I hope this entire exercise will provide a useful model for rediscovering the power of poems.
Heaney, who passed away just a few years ago, was an erudite scholar and a master of language. On occasion his poems reached heights that required the help of scholarly guides. But in much of his work, Heaney was the poet of the everyman. He loved people and spoke to their lives; he loved being human and living this life. He had a tender touch, a respectful feeling for the condition we are in. What was especially dear to him was what was dear to us: working alongside his parents, kissing his wife, meeting a friend at the pub, observing a colorful stranger, taking in the splendor of the crashing sea or a tiny bird resting in the sunlight, reading an ancient legend or a new story. He admired human work and all the tools we use to get our jobs done, such as the tackle for a farmer’s horse, the anvil of a smithy, or the peeler his grandmother used on potatoes. And he loved human love—the love of a son for his father, a husband for his wife, a countryman for his countrymen, and the artist’s love for the work at hand.
Heaney came from humble roots but roots to which he closely attended and from which was born and nurtured a profound attention to the world—a necessary habit for poets and for the rest of us who would allow poetry to make us feel the world more deeply. On the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Heaney described those humble beginnings, and in that beautiful recollection of his origins, we can already see in the young Seamus the focused attention of the future poet. For that reason, let’s look at a telling passage:
In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course - rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house… [W]e were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence. [I]t was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signalling too. When a wind stirred in the beeches, it also stirred an aerial wire attached to the topmost branch of the chestnut tree. Down it swept, in through a hole bored in the corner of the kitchen window, right on into the innards of our wireless set where a little pandemonium of burbles and squeaks would suddenly give way to the voice of a BBC newsreader speaking out of the unexpected like a deus ex machina. And that voice too we could hear in our bedroom, transmitting from beyond and behind the voices of the adults in the kitchen; just as we could often hear, behind and beyond every voice, the frantic, piercing signalling of morse code.
Yes, he took in everything. With all his powers of observation he bent his ear to listen, straining especially to hear the voice of our humanity in the kitchen and on the wireless. He was attuned to his people and their land, to the broader world around him as it emerged and struck his young senses. He felt, heard, and saw with great appreciation each part of the life he shared with his family on their farm, and with distant peoples, as much as he could comprehend what they were from his rural vantage point. Each experience was like those gentle quakes to the water bucket: they formed concentric circles all connected to the life he lived—to the ground below, to the raining sky above, to the rumbling trains and to the radio with its voices drawn mysteriously from afar. These all shaped and filled the world he knew; and while it was poor and rural and tucked away in the north of Ireland, it was the place from which he encountered the wider world.
Heaney’s reflection on his origins is moving because it resonates with us. We all have roots, we all start from a place that connects us to others and to the wider world. In other words, he reminds us that we are all human. We have that in common with Heaney the poet, Heaney the Irishman.
In next week’s blog post, Andrew Zwerneman will give our readers tips on how to explore the details of a poem. He’ll then apply them to Seamus Heaney’s signature poem “Digging.”
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.
Header image of Seamus Heaney by Simon Garrett. Used under license CC BY 3.0.