1995 Nobel literature laureate Seamus Heaney passed last week into the realm of writerly immortals. Called by some the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, he never quite indulged in W.B.’s profound Celtic mysticism. Nevertheless, you could certainly smell the peat bogs in his poetry’s earthy rhythms. He also recognized the island’s bloody sectarian history without being trapped by it.
Check out the first line of the first poem, “Digging,” in his first collection, 1966’s Death of a Naturalist:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Given that Heaney was a Catholic from Northern Ireland, those lines weren’t just a statement of intent, they were thick with danger; something that the vast majority of poetry eschews. Not that Heaney was any ideologue; he was too thoughtful for both sides during the Troubles and made enemies all around, as good writers should.
And for anybody who has painful school memories of the glum verses of Beowulf, go try out Heaney’s verse translation of it from 2000. Gloriously melodramatic and lyrical at the same time, it’s meant to be read aloud by a campfire to a ring of rapt listeners. It’s how more writers should aim to sound.