It came as a surprise to me, on hearing about the death of Seamus Heaney a couple of months ago, how saddened I was. His was a talent that mastered language in an enviable way with a sharp ear for the rhythm of language and an eye that focused on even the smallest of details. He was also the one poet who brought me back to an interest in poetry.
As a young child I was a poetry lover – I had numerous volumes of poem-a-day collections, but somewhere along the way I lost my interest. Perhaps it was one too many renditions of Don’t Stick That Marble Up Your Nose! or it’s remarkably similar counterpart that warned of putting a potty on your head… Regardless, somewhere between primary and secondary school I ended up hating poetry. Why couldn’t poets just say things straight? Tell it like it really was? Oh no, instead they had to go and write around what they really wanted to say, creating apparently irrelevant scenes and images and confusing the hell out of me.
I think I must have been about twelve when I first encountered Heaney. I was in my weekly ‘Speech & Drama’ class, listening to one of my friends prepare for her spoken-poetry exam when I came across Mid-Term Break – even now I can remember the knot that caught in the back of my throat as I heard it read aloud. I was taken aback that poetry could be so stripped back, so simple and honest. But impressed as I was, that one poem didn’t change my opinion overnight. In fact, I was still dubious throughout lower and middle school, but when I came to sixth form and A-levels, all that changed. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was overjoyed when I learned we’d be studying Heaney, but I certainly wasn’t writing him off as fast as many of my peers.
As a class we moved through his poems at what then felt like torturously slow pace. Not all of them were as straight-talking as Mid-Term Break, but as we dissected what Heaney was really saying, I developed an appreciation for his manipulation of words. The way he re-created memories or suggested at histories, captured my imagination – and my heart. Some of those poems that we studied, that we tore apart line by line in search of meaning, are now some of my very favourite poems. For me, Alphabets, Digging, Clearances 3, Punishment, Limbo and The Other Side all stood out, and while varied and vast as Heaney’s collections are, these poems are, in my opinion, some of his most powerful and raw.
As some of my MA peers will have learned this year, around me, you bash Heaney at your own peril! While we have been teaching in the community and in undergraduate classes, Heaney has popped up several times, often to the dismay of the students. I have taken it upon myself to try and offer them the introduction to Heaney I had so that they too can appreciate his mastery of his craft. And, while often it feels like an uphill struggle with students not keen to dive into the poems in front of them (why is it that poetry is so considered so ‘uncool’?), every now and then I find someone whose opinion I can see changing right in front of me, a slow smile appearing at the familiarity of his poems, or furrowed brow as they too feel Heaney’s pain or discomfort. For me, this is what makes Heaney great. Aside from his technical ability (that scholars will be praising until the cows come home), through his work he has been able to change people’s opinions of poetry and draw them into his world. For me, the greatest poet of any age is not necessarily the most technically skilled (though Heaney clearly scores very highly in that department too), but the one who can connect with the reader in such a way as to challenge their thinking, touch their hearts and communicate something of the depth of human experience. Is Seamus Heaney the greatest poet of our age? – I’ll let you be the judge.