I’ve hardly ever seen everyone so sad. Poetry may make nothing happen, as the partially quoted passage goes, but this poet has done something.
Today, he has knocked Syria right off Facebook: stories are accumulating, anecdotes piling up like freshly dug potatoes, poems are sprouting, people are remembering his modesty, generosity and unfailing gentlemanliness. The measure of the man. Poets due to go on the radio can’t stop crying, and political journalists are stopped in their tracks. One, asked to write something, declares he isn’t worthy, and suggests someone else. That person also declines, saying he isn’t worthy.
This unusual modesty – and grief – gets at something important that Heaney has given unstintingly of – both in the above-mentioned anecdotes and in his work. Humanity. It’s the big subject of his poems. The human plight, human spirit, ‘all the dynasties of the dead’, the plight of the naturalist… ‘Hello, this is Seamus Heaney here’, he said to one arts administrator on the phone. ‘From Dublin’.
In his attentiveness to language, his care for the precise image, even his sometimes almost parodic use of archaisms and colloquialisms – he celebrated the humanity of having language. He not only gave us (or gave us back) that word, ‘wordhoard’, he also gave us a word hoard. He passed it to us like a treasure chest. (And he was apparently amused, or at least not unpleased, a few years ago when given the Cockney rhyming slang name of Bikini.)
This commonality of language and being human comes out into the open in the title of his final collection – final, now, unless there’s a posthumous one – Human Chain. Its title poem links – like a chain, of course – our act of writing and reading, and the massive human crisis that is Syria (and elsewhere), and offers, however uselessly, an image of people working together, passing the treasure on, and a very physical manifestation of trust. The leap of the spark. Well, the spark is leaping now. We’re next along.
One of the first poetry books I bought as a new collection was by Seamus Heaney: Station Island. Here, a very short, compressed, almost haiku-like poem, a description, a challenge, and an exhortation, which sums up for me what we should take with us along the chain. You find something similar in poem after poem, throughout his books. The human line. The leap of faith. There is only margin; there is no other way.
The First Gloss
Take hold of the shaft of the pen.
Subscribe to the first step taken
from a justified line
into the margin.