SEAMUS HEANEY’S 1995 NOBEL LECTURE
by Harry Youtt
Seamus Heaney was a living legend. He seemed somehow indestructible, a fixture, the unofficial permanent poet laureate of the English-speaking world. I don’t know why we all expected that he’d go on forever. Maybe it was his approachable affability. His patina of simplicity. Everything seemed so solid.
He passed away in August. Suddenly he’s gone, and we’re left searching for ways to connect, to fully discover the depth and breadth of what we have lost. It turns out he wasn’t nearly as simple and accessible as initial appearances might have indicated.
In 1995, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The inscription on the award read: “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth.” He gave the obligatory Nobel Lecture, but most of us didn’t pay too much attention to any of that at the time.
The Lecture takes us back to the basics of Heaney, in his own words. It becomes an instantly useful resource. You can try to buy a copy in hard or soft cover, if you like, although it’s no longer in print (Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture [Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Ireland: Gallery Press (1995)]). But it is also available online, for free, and with an option of actually listening to Heaney as he delivered it. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1995/heaney-lecture.html
Reading or listening to it will give the easy sense of being with Heaney as he recounts what got him started in poetry and what kept him going, even through the most troubled and violent times of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s recent history. Seeing him tell simple stories from his past, recounting myths, and in the process manifesting truly complex concepts will yield a deeper understanding of Heaney’s particular style, and the ways he evolved into it.
The Lecture will also provide a fair amount of insight into the art of poetry in general. We want the surprise [of poetry], he said, to be . . . like the impatient thump which unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set, or the electric shock which sets the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm. What more can any of us who strive at poetry aspire to?
I wish to suggest, he said, that images and stories of the kind I am invoking here do function as bearers of value. In the face of poetry’s need, especially in times of extreme crisis, not to shrink from hard and retributive truth, he emphasized the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust.
What the necessary poetry always does, he said, is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed.
Some classify Heaney’s poetry as ‘plain-spoken.’ At times that’s right. Yes, in one of his poems, he could tell us of a home-based man at home, living in his Night after nightness, and we all can easily comprehend. But this was only sometimes. Unfortunately, that casual phrase: “plain speech” puts us somewhat off the trail that Heaney was following. The true quest to reach the core of him requires us to proceed much farther.
It turns out that frequently, access to him isn’t so easy. Partly it is the framing of his unique memories, the way he extracts his images out of darkened cellars and attics, then holds them up into light and air of his poems, into purpose and meaning they might not have had before he got to them and brought them to us. We find ourselves having to reach for the contexts, in order to set them in place. In the Lecture he referred to this as: manifesting that order of poetry where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.
I credit poetry, he said, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference . . . for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.
Heaney’s departure from plain speech accessibility stems from his devotion to the rhythms and forms of his poetry, the wild and unique phrasings that rise from simple words. In the lecture, he called it the temple inside our hearing that has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem’s concerns or the poet’s truthfulness. This, he said, is what keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice beyond all the other informing voices. This is what Heaney strived for, finding that persuasive voice beyond. And he was able to accomplish it. It is what not only keeps his voice unique; it is what elevates the experience of reading him, up to a level he wanted his poetry to rise.
The goal of his poetry, he said, was to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself.
In noting the influences of other poets upon him, Heaney credited Gerard Manley Hopkins with the intensity of his exclamations which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn’t fully know I knew until I read him. Hearing that line, I couldn’t help thinking that it could easily apply to my own reaction to reading Heaney himself for the first time.
In one of his poems, Crossings, he wrote: You drive into a meaning of trees, a sense . . . / Of glimpse and dapple. A life all trace and skim / The car has vanished out of.
And in another, (Eeling), about the common experience of fishing for eels, he described his prey as: not the utter / Flip-stream frolic fish / But a foot-long/Slither of a fellow,/ . . . rightly wriggle-spined.
In another he described the banked residue of a coal fire as The cindery skull / Formed when its tarry / Coral cooled.
With such turnings, Heaney throughout his poetic career was able to use the power of his own nostalgic exploration to accomplish the lift of the poetically resonant phrase, the breath of the poet’s purpose. His gift like a slingstone / Whirled for the desperate.
During the lecture, Heaney talked about St. Kevin. He recounted the myth he’d covered in one of his earlier poems. When Kevin was meditating and prayerful, with arms outstretched, a bird nested and laid its eggs into Kevin’s hand, which kept him patiently at his devotion while the new birds hatched and grew, and were ‘flocked and fledged and flown.’ In the lecture, Heaney referred to St Kevin at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal . . . That line made me imagine Heaney himself as a kind of St. Kevin figure. We know his natural process. What must have been his glimpsed ideal? And when we begin to read his poetry, that glimpsed ideal becomes near-apparent in most of what he writes. We just have to dig a little to find it, and it is the elevation of the resonance that provides the energy and the beacon for that search.
He referred to the diamond absolutes of poetry, and he counted as one of them the sufficiency of that which is absolutely imagined. Savor that phrase: the sufficiency of that which is absolutely imagined. And with this in mind, note his acknowledgment that he’d evolved to attain a space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvelous as well as the murderous.
In some ways, Heaney was more of a formalist than otherwise might be assumed. Poetic form, he said in the lecture, is both the ship and the anchor — at once a buoyancy and a holding [steadying]. Poetic form. Unfortunately not enough attention is paid in the current culture to poetic form as a permanent value. We should pay attention to his words.
Heaney’s reference to poetry as both ship and anchor harks back to Heaney’s poem: Lightenings viii, in which the anchor of a ship, floating in the heavens, became tangled as it dragged on our earth. A sailor from the heavens climbed down to free it and was helped by monks, so that
. . . the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back / Out of the marvelous as he had known it.
And as a kind of epitaph-image, I am imagining Seamus’ recent departure as the long climb of the sailor, up the anchor rope, climbing back/Out of the marvelous as we all have known it, up to a mystic ship, sailing beyond.
Now gone. But not far.