Sunday, September 15, 2013

"If You Have the Words"

"Does any human being ever realize life as they live it, every, every minute"
"Saints and poets maybe, they do some"
                                            Thornton Wilder
                                            Our Town
 What draws us to like, or not like poetry, let alone write it?  I know extremely literate people who just don't care for poetry, who find it artificial. They don't like seeing sentences forced into meter and rhyme perhaps. And some people find that the feelings  expressed in poetry are just too raw, too emotional, too personal.

I think that for those of us who are drawn to poetry, it is for those moments when we feel we have achieved this realization that Thornton Wilder speaks of in Our Town. For at least one glorious moment, we get it.  And when I read poetry, it is exactly what I am looking for as well.
The morning of August 30th, as we were packing my son to go to college, a CNN text informed me that Seamus Heaney had died.  I even remember saying something about it and my son saying "Mom, you're always saying somebody died," (Its true. He only cares when its a ballplayer) There wasn't time just then, but when I got back home I looked up my volumes of his poetry.
Seamus Heaney is my favorite modern poet. (I define modern poet as someone who lived and wrote into my lifetime, which means the 60's on). The only other poet who would come close (and he died when I was quite young) would be Robert Frost, whom Mr Heaney had a lot in common with, since both writers always leave a feeling of the earth beneath one's feet.

More experienced people than myself can analyze his poetry and say what makes it important and special, and why people said he was the best Irish poet since Yeats.  I can only say what his work meant to me.   Over the last week or so I have gone back and read all those poems again.   They still resonate in a way that few other writers have done.  They are filled with images of love, a sense of history, and of Ireland.
  I first discovered the poetry of Seamus Heaney when I was in college, taking modern British and Irish Poetry. I liked the poems in the class anthology, so when we had to write a paper on a 20th century poet I chose him. 
  One of the books I studied for my paper was about the people of the bog burials that have been found in Ireland and elsewhere. Much of his work was informed by the long sad history of Northern Ireland, where he was born. When he wrote of the subtle ways one could tell Orange from Green in Belfast, it felt true.
I got a good grade on the paper, and I found a new favorite poet.  Probably some of the best tuition money I ever spent.
A few years after that I wrote that paper, I was listening to some tapes my dad had made for me of Mom's Irish music.  And when I heard the poem Tommy Makem recite "Requiem for the Croppies"  at the beginning of "Four Green Fields" I recognized the words, and  I realized that I had found Seamus Heaney even before that Modern Poetry Class.

People who read poetry regularly know how hard it can be to track down works by the poets they like.  They just aren't front and center at the local mega bookstore.  But the Christmas after Mr Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I asked my husband for a book of his poems.  I knew that even the mega stores usually promote the works of big prize winners.  The bookstore clerk at the mall was clueless, but the fine folks at Borders had a whole table full of his works sitting out and my husband had no difficulty finding me a set of selected poems, one of my most treasured gifts both for the contents and the quest involved.
I kept reading his work as it came out. He wrote a play called The Cure at Troy, that was based on a Greek Tragedy, but set in Northern Ireland.  He also did an amazing translation of Beowulf that for me restores the feeling of sitting around the fire listening to the storytellers recite this great epic.
I hate to quote specific passages because his work reads better in context (and quoting whole poems would be copyright infringement), but here's a clip of Heaney himself reading from one of his most famous poems , "Whatever you say, say nothing"
Seamus Heaney once said "If you have the words, there's always a chance that you'll find the way."  I think that's a wonderful summary of what writing is all about. So a toast to one who always found the words and the

Be sure to check out the other writers posting on Yeah Write's weekend moonshine grid.


  1. I'm not familiar with Seamus Heaney's work, but I'll have to look him up.

  2. Thank you Meg, it was lovely to read this. I too have adored Seamus Heaney since school, he was a poet who brought such joy to people.

    1. Thank you Beth,I'm glad you liked it. One feels so inadequate trying to find something to say about someone who used words so brilliantly.

  3. Meg, I really enjoyed this post. I'm a poetry-lover. I haven't read any of Heaney's work, but I will now. My favorite contemporary poet is Mary Oliver.

    You should check out Rattle Poetry ( They publish the work of contemporary poets (known and unknown), but only quality stuff. I subscribe, so I get a poem emailed to me every day, and sometimes the work just blows me away.


    1. Thanks for the Rattle Poetry heads up. Iwent to the page and the first thing I saw was a poem by Robert Bly, another writer I admire. Of course I signed up for the emails.

  4. That's how I felt when Adrienne Rich died, so I totally get this.

    1. And isnt ot rough sitting at work, say, the only one witha clue this momentous even occured. That's partly why I wrote this.