Portraits of a Poet: Seamus Heaney

Portrait of a Poet: Seamus Heaney

"Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols

Beat on their bars together.

A hunger-striker's father

Stands in the graveyard dumb.

The police widow in veils

Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don't hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

If there's fire on the mountain

Or lightning and storm

And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing

The outcry and the birth-cry

Of new life at its term." - The Cure at Troy


by Tai-Shan Schierenberg
oil on canvas, 2004

Tai-Shan Schierenberg. Oil on canvas. 2004

A good poem allows you to have your feet on the ground and your head in the air simultaneously.
— - Seamus Heaney (Something to Write Home About)

Student collage, November 2013  passages from "Funeral Rites"

I shouldered a kind of manhood

stepping in to lift the coffins

of dead relations

They had been laid out

in tainted rooms,

their eyes glistening,

their dough-white hands

shackled in rosary beads.

...Now as news comes in

as each neighbourly murer

we pine for ceremony

customary rhythms:

the temperate footsteps

of a cortege, winding past

each blinded home

I would restore....

...When they have put the stone

back in its mouth

we drive north again

past Strang and Carling fjords,

the cud of memory

allayed for once, arbitration

of the feud placated,

imagining those under the hill

disposed like Gunnar

who lay beautiful

inside his burial mound,

though dead by violence

and unavenged.

Men said he was chanting

verses about honour

and that four lights burned

in the corners of the chamber:

which opened then, as he turned

with a joyful face

to look at the moon."

Student Collage, November 2013. From the student: "Through numerous acts of courage in both his written and spoken words, Seamus Heaney has become an icon of Ireland and a major proponent for peace and the resolution of The Troubles. This pieces is intended to force you, the viewer, to look at the state we live in and allow ourselves to live in. What do you see? What can you fix? Do you have the courage to fix it? Inside the six counties of Northern Ireland are Heaney's words from poems like "Funeral Rites," "Churning Day," "Broagh," "The Tolland Man," "Casuality," "Badgers," "Wheels within Wheels," "Lightning," and "Keeping Going." Note the jarring effect the words have initially but linger just a while longer and see the harmony behind the chaos."

I grew up in between.
— Seamus Heaney (Terminus)

"From the Frontier of Writing"

The tightness and the nilness round that space
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face

towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover

and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration—

a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.

So you drive on to the frontier of writing
where it happens again. The guns on tripods;
the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating

data about you, waiting for the squawk
of clearance; the marksman training down
out of the sun upon you like a hawk.

And suddenly you're through, arraigned yet freed,
as if you'd passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road

past armor-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.

Heaney achieved just that and did so on contested soil. His words both comforted and inspired a generation conflicted over Northern Ireland. Like a good poet, even in his death, Heaney forged a path towards hope while consoling us with his last words, which we learned from his son Michael were to his love wife, Marie “in his beloved Latin and they read: ‘Noli timere’ - don’t be afraid.”

By sharing his poetry, boundaries were broken. Without engaging in politics through a decisive choice of words, Heaney’s poems are as unpretentious as they are profound. If a poem allows you to have your feet grounded and your head in the air, then a good portrait painting can speak to us in a way words cannot convey. Schierenberg succeeds in rendering Heaney as an introverted bard, wrestling with furrowed brow the heavy toll of cultural turmoil. Heaney lived through the tumultuous time in Northern Ireland referred to as “The Troubles,” a period undeniably understated in name. During his lifetime, both his voice and his face became the portrait of a nation torn by eruptions of violence. Heaney’s face was one of pensive but stoic strength, with kind glinting eyes that squinted from under heavy lids and expressive eyebrows. That wildly disheveled shock of silver white hair and the glimmer of a grin made him feel more like a friendly neighbor, than a Nobel Laureate voice of a nation. Let’s face it, that’s just how Heaney wanted it. He was the son of a farmer and a family man.

For those fortunate enough to shake his hand, they were the hands of man who knew how to work with more than a pen. Beneath the surface there was a palpable restlessness that great writers possess to decisively find the right word, discover the appropriate metaphor, and to always dig deeper. Digging is a word closely associated with Heaney who was an archaeologist of words. “Do not waver into language. Do not waver in it," he wrote.

When Seamus Heaney passed away this August at the age of 74, the world honored the beloved poet from a divided land, collectively regarded as a good and humble man of unwavering integrity. The myriad of tributes shared serve as a testimony of a man celebrated for his exemplary citizenship. His wise words rooted a nation in a collective nostalgia and shared history that predated that which now divides them. The Irish love a good funeral, and at Heaney’s it was reported, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. He was loved and admired, it seems, by all. Like a good Irish girl, I soaked up all the poetic admiration showering Heaney, canonizing him in obituaries and eulogies.

Fintan O’Toole in his honoring his friend said:

“He was not, in that sense, a national poet. He knew too much about the dangers of tribalism and the foolish of slogans to ever want to be a spokesman for the collective. He would have agreed with Yeats’s dictum that ‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” O’Toole adds, “He lacked the arrogance to tell us who we are- much importantly, he told us what we are. He reminded us that Ireland is a culture before it is an economy. And in the extraordinary way he bore himself, the dignity and decency and the mellow delight that shone from him, he gave us self-respect.”

Eileen Battersby of the Irish Times wrote of Heaney: “The greatness of his art lies in his understanding of the heroic ever pulsing within the commonplace. Heaney was wonderfully ordinary, he was also heroic and his hauntingly lyrical, deceptively candid vision was epic.”

Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, said: "During the darkest days of the Northern Ireland conflict he was our conscience: a conscience that was accurate and precise in how it articulated what was happening. he was the greatest Irishman of my generation: he had no rivals."

Fellow poet Paul Muldoon eulogized his longtime friend; “The Seamus Heaney who was renowned the world over was never a man who took himself too seriously, certainly not with his family and friends. He had, after all, a signal ability to make each of us feel connected not only to him but to one another. We’ve all spent many years thinking about his poetry. We’ll all spend many more years thinking about it. It’s the person rather than the poet I’m focusing on today. The person who did everything con brio, “with vigor.”He added in a later tribute; “He was a rare phenomenon in the poetry world. You could not find a single person who would say a bad thing about Seamus Heaney. And that’s unheard of.”

What we do in eulogies, we aim to immortalize in portraiture. So it is that Schierenberg presents Heaney as the man lumbering in thought choosing carefully those visionary words.  My students know Heaney’s work through his translation of “Beowulf” and I was pleased that their association wasn’t steeped in the association with the Northern Ireland conflict. However in sharing the history of his time and through their own reading of his poems, they grew more interested in how he came to shoulder the nation through his words.I tested myself too in the frontier of decopauge to create an example. When Heaney passed, I found myself hunting through my anthologies and text books from ten years back when I was earning my M.A in Irish Literature and History at Boston College. They've stayed on my nightstand since. Like all good poetry, I continue to return to Heaney, like so many of us when times are tough or I need some help navigating through a mood.

Student 2007

I was first introduced to Seamus Heaney in 2000, when I studied at Trinity College in Dublin. My introduction came after my visit to Belfast. During the summer between my junior and senior year in college, I was excited to visit the land all of my great grandparents had left behind earlier in the century. My visit was all the better by having my classmate and fellow sailing teammate, Anna Kilkenny a native Irish girl, touring me around the night before my departure north. Over the month spent in Ireland I had met many of my Irish cousins who had never traveled north. Out and about at a pub one night in the city a stranger approached me trying to guess if I was Australian, Canadian, Spanish or Italian. Interestingly this happens a fair bit when I travel and I'm not often identified initially as American. He confirmed and identified me a “yank” and thirteen years later I still remember his follow up question when I revealed I was curious in learning more about Irish Literature & History. “So then, did ye think ye’d get yerself an Aer Lingus ticket, fly over, and figure out what all this Troubles business is all about then?” It was my first taste of being reminded of my privileged American status, provided the opportunity to further academic pursuit. He was spot on.  I was looking to connect with something: the heritage of my family, to understand how cultural identity can divide a nation, to uncover why they left, to find my own voice, to be inspired, who knows,... but yes, I was on quest for figuring things out.

The Maze Prison was emptied the day before I traveled to Heaney's alma mater, Queens College in Belfast. Newspapers blazoned headlines like “Maze emptied as terrorist prisoners walk free” with photos of children standing in front of burning flames or “Silent jail left to ghosts of terms past.” It was startling to see the papers running lists of the prisoner’s mug shots along with a list of their crimes. Our bus, filled with American students from across the U.S, was greeted in a grittier part of the city by what appeared to be (but was never confirmed to be) a brief brick throwing by locals. I could hear the soundtrack playing U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, Sinead O’Connor’s “This is a Rebel Song” and The Cranberries “Zombie” playing in my mind. I recognized the look of the city through films like "In the Name of the Father," "The Crying Game," and "The Boxer." The popular culture of the 1990s had provided me with ample Homes and neighborhoods were marked with artistic murals unlike any I had ever seen. As an art student, I found these fascinating both for what they propagated, promoted and how steeped they were in tribalism.

photo (5).JPG
Teaching is as much a mastery as it is a technique, and the air of the person, his or her intellectual radiance or general trustworthiness, is going to have as much to do with the poet/professor’s impact as the size of the reputation or the intrinsic quality of the poetry itself.
— Seamus Heaney. From "Finder's Keepers" in "Poetry & Professing"

 And yet, Belfast was a lovely place too. Queens College in Belfast was clean, quiet and felt otherworldly compared to Shankill Road down the street. The Antrim Coastline was magnificent and the city just as enchanting as "The Republic." I visited Stormant, surrounded by Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionists, Loyalists, Social Democratic & Labor Party, Democratic Unionist Party Members some of who were candidly forthright about their involvement in "The Troubles." I walked down the great hill and stood behind the statue of Lord Carson and became very aware of how I really didn't know as much as I thought. To say my mind was blown, was an understatement. Under the direction of Gerry Dawe (also an accomplished poet), we toured the city and were introduced to some of the most important diplomats and writers in Belfast.Returning to Dublin, we were introduced to Seamus Heaney, or "Famous Seamus" as Gerry Dawe put it. I'm sure in some notebook buried in a trunk of notebooks I have notes from that day. As with so many things, and often with great figures like Heaney, you infuriatingly don't remember the precise details of what was mentioned. What was clear is that Heaney was a lifelong learner and a superb teacher, at that time sharing his joy in researching the etymology of words for translation of “Beowulf.” Perhaps after my journey, and sampling some of his gritty, guttural poems, I expected to see an intensely tormented soul, but Heaney was at ease, quietly reserved and friendly. He laughed, smiled and was generous with his time. I shook his hand as he scrawled his name in my newly purchased “Open Ground” and I savored his words.

Visiting Ireland in 2009 for my 30th birthday. Hope to return again soon!

It was during that trip that the interest in Irish Literature and History truly ignited. Admittedly, it wasn’t the hardest of sells for the great-granddaughter of Irish immigrants named Deirdre who hails from “the most Irish town in America” with the highest density of Irish Americans in the United States. But, the Ireland I visited in 2000 was not the Ireland my family left, it was a booming metropolis, at that time the youngest city in the newly formed European Union and surfing the economic wave of prosperity dubbed the “Celtic Tiger.’ On long walks alone through Dublin, it was evident to me that despite the renaissance of reclaimed poetry, drama and literature I was studying within Trinity College walls, there was a continued struggle. Asylum seekers strewn the streets and it felt as though the Irish didn’t know what do with people seeking solace in a country so many before them exiled. I savored Heaney's poems. From a young age, I've always enjoyed poetry and reading in general. I returned home to Scituate more confused and curious about Ireland than when I left a month prior. In my senior year at Hobart & William Smith, I sought out a private study on “Ulysses” with an insightful professor aptly named Daniel O’Connell. When I finished reading the great masterpiece and we concluded our last lesson with the submission of my thesis paper, Professor O’Connell and he said, “Now you are ready to read “Ulysses.” How right he was. My interest brought me to Boston College where I enrolled in a course on Yeats and Heaney with the gifted poet professor Paul Mariani. Ten years ago, I heard Seamus Heaney read again and it would be the last time I would be privileged to hear him speak. It only struck me at that time that maybe in my interest in 20th century Irish writers that I was imagining what life might have been like for my family had they stayed. I continue to return to Heaney’s poems and I treasure his collection “Finder’s Keepers.” Do yourself a favor and pick it up. It’s the next best thing to enjoying a conversation with the great man himself.  

On October 25, 2013 The Guardian published the last poem Seamus Heaney wrote before his death on World War I.

"In the Field"

And there I was in the middle of a field,

The furrows once called "scores' still with their gloss,

The tractor with its hoisted plough just gone

Snarling at an unexpected speed

Out on the road. Last of the jobs,

The windings had been ploughed, furrows turned

Three ply or four round each of the four sides

Of the breathing land, to mark it off And out.

Within that boundary now

Step the fleshy earth and follow

The long healed footprints of one who arrived

From nowhere, unfamiliar and de-mobbed,

In buttoned khaki and buffed army boots,

Bruising the turned-up acres of our back field

To stumble from the windings' magic ring

And take me by a hand to lead me back

Through the same old gate into the yard

Where everyone has suddenly appeared,

All standing waiting.

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~Heaney, Seamus. "Open Ground: Poems 1966-1996"

Heaney, Seamus. "Finders Keepers" Farrarr, Straus, Giroux 2002.

Vendler, Helen. "Seamus Heaney" Harvard Press. Massachusetts.1998

The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, & Reviews. Edited by Elmer Andrews. Columbia University Press New York, 1998.

The Art of Seamus Heaney. Edited by Tony Curtis. Poetry Wales Press Ltd. 2001