x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Obit: Seamus Heaney

The Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet has left the kind of literary void that might be impossible to fill.

Seamus Heaney photographed in 1995, the year he won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Seamus Heaney photographed in 1995, the year he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet who died on Friday at the age of 74, has left the kind of literary void that might be impossible to fill, writes Ben East

Amid the outpouring of affection for Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who died after a short illness on Friday at the age of 74, there was one observation from a fellow writer which seemed to say it all. “The death of this beloved man seems to have left a breach in the language itself,” mourned Don Paterson in The Guardian.

Powerful stuff. But he was right. There aren’t many poets who could ostensibly write about the Northern Ireland of their youth and yet make this small country seem so translatable, so universal. No wonder Bill Clinton marvelled at his ability to find the rhythms of ordinary lives. And no wonder the citation for his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 talked of “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.

The fact is, people could relate to Seamus Heaney right from his very first collection in 1966, Death of a Naturalist. The quasi-manifesto for his future writerly career, Digging, is rightly lauded. But Death of a Naturalist is remarkable, dealing with the death of his younger brother in a road accident.

More than 45 years on, it still brings a lump to the throat: “Wearing a poppy bruise on the left temple/ He lay in the four-foot box as in a cot/ No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear/ A four-foot box, a foot for every year.”

Here is Heaney’s effortless skill writ large – subtle yet matter of fact, lyrical yet unfussy. He would return to mortality – this time his own – in the brilliant Human Chain collection a full 40 years on, describing a journey to hospital by ambulance after suffering a stroke. “My once capable/Warm hand, hand that I could not feel you lift/ And lag in yours throughout that journey/When it lay flop-heavy as a bellpull.”

It is heartbreaking – and reminiscent of the great 19th-century Romantic poet Keats, to which it -quietly refers. And if talk of death runs the risk of making Heaney sound morbid, he was anything but.

There is bleakness, particularly when he chronicled the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but his poems marvel at the human capacity for resourcefulness in the face of difficulty. This, surely, is why Heaney’s work has transcended generations, nationalities and even political standpoints. It’s telling that people from both sides of the border and divide in Northern Ireland were quick to praise his life’s work.

So they should. The cascade of tributes from his fellow writers in recent days are testament to a man who not only became an influence on the likes of Simon Armitage (who, like Heaney with Beowulf, has translated epics that hark back to Anglo-Saxon times) and Tom Stoppard, but also something of a father figure in the poetry world. He taught in the US and the UK and constantly encouraged his contemporaries on to greater things.

And Heaney’s influence wasn’t just in the English-speaking world. The Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz worked with Heaney last year on Anything Can Happen, based on three of the Irishman’s poems and two sections of the Injeel. It used Heaney’s translation of the Roman poet Horace’s Odes as a response to the September 11 attacks – and the merest of excerpts sums up Heaney’s brilliance.

“He galloped his thunder cart and his horses/Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth/and the clogged underearth, the River Styx/the winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself/ Anything can happen, the tallest towers/Be overturned.”

Like everyone who came across Heaney, it seems, Fairouz talks on his website of his “gratitude for [Heaney’s] support and friendship”. And gratitude is the right word. Heaney’s passing may, as Paterson said, have left a cavernous hole in the poetry world. But his work is all there, for all time.


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