Heaney's Poems — Great, Dangerous, Healing — Live On
Seamus Heaney died this morning, but his poems continue to be very much alive — and in them, he is first and foremost a poet whose poems you feel in your mouth. Pronouncing the words as he describes a bog in which "Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles/ Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell" puts all that grit and wetness and earth on your tongue.
"Digging," Heaney's youthful assumption of both the earthy groundedness and violent lineage of his homeland, was the first poem Heaney wrote that, he says, he truly felt was his. It was also one of the first poems I loved.
"Between my finger and thumb/ The squat pen rests, snug as a gun," the poem begins; what a powerful and frightening thing I realized I was holding, my pen, as I wrote my own (terrible) first attempts at poetry.
Heaney was a deeply political writer, but, more than anything, his work emphasized one of poetry's most basic and most important lessons: that words are the human element as much as air. Heaney knew that in his bones. As a teacher of mine, the poet Robert Farnsworth, used to say, many human problems — if not most — take place in the language, the principal strength and failing of which is precision.
Heaney was a master of picking the right words, of finding, for instance, the sound of a taste, the syllable of a smell, the vowel for what a thing does (a piece of straw stuck into a spinning upturned bicycle wheel "frittered," for instance).
But he also understood, warily, that words tend to want to point to one truth at a time: toward yes or no, right or wrong. He struggled in his poems to find ways of making words take more than one side at once, while he stood at the crossroads of one of history's bitterest ongoing territorial and ideological conflicts.
Heaney found many figures for the persistence of history through time, its enduring conscience; among the most beautiful were his poems about "bog people," earlier citizens of Ireland mummified in swamps and unearthed. Heaney visited them and wrote poems that quietly illustrate how violence is never forgotten, how violent acts reverberate from the past through the future, as does the hanging of this man:
Who will say 'corpse'
to his vivid cast?
Who will say 'body'
to his opaque repose?
And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus's.
I first saw his twisted face
in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,
but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,
hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Drying Gaul
too strickly compassed
on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.
That "actual weight" still bears down on us. There's been a lot of talk lately about contemporary poetry's value or lack thereof; a good poem reminds us that words are our most powerful, dangerous, and healing inventions. Heaney wrote not just good poems, but great poems — I'll be keeping his words in my mouth as reminders for the rest of my life.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of three books, most recently Cradle Book: Stories and Fables and To Keep Love Blurry: Poems. He has been an NPR NewsPoet, has served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, publishes reviews widely and works as director of Digital Operations and Poetry Reviews editor at Publishers Weekly magazine.
Teicher lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and children.
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