RIP Seamus Heaney – 7 Pieces of Poetic Wisdom from A Passing Legend

Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of our generation, has died at the age of 74.  Having left behind dozens of poetry books, select prose and a prolific amount of translations, his legacy will not soon be overlooked. Born in Northern Ireland but having spent most of his life in Ireland proper, his knowledge of place went beyond basic geographic demarcations. Rather, he sought to express the bare-bones minutiae of this world. He wanted to opened up the ground. He wanted to dissect the past.

Almost 40 years ago, Heaney delivered a lecture called “Feelings into words” to the Royal Society of Literature, a manifesto attempting to connect the most meticulous aspects of craft and technique to the hearts of men. There is no denying that Heaney lived and breathed the art, but it was his intention to reclaim what has been lost to time, be it childhood memories or people he was close with. Here are some of the finest pieces of wisdom from his speech:

1. On Creating: “Poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants.”

There’s no doubting that Heaney had a penchant for the earth. Consider one of his most famous poems, “Digging”:

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them

I think that this quote is a more realistic interpretation of the poetic process. An dated misconception of writing poetry is that its formation is miraculous. Rather, Heaney insists that the effort comes first and not the inspiration. But if you push for long enough, you will find life in your language.

2. On the purpose of poetry: “…The poem does no more than allow that bud of wisdom to exfoliate…”

It is at times difficult to justify the purpose of poetry to those who don’t like it, but I think this quote captures the potential of good verse, as well as its limitations. You cannot explain the meaning of life in one stanza, but much can be said about people and their lives in very simple phrases. The first stanza of “Personal Helicon” tells us a lot about his curiosity as a child without trying to tell it:

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

Heaney described childhood so well. No matter how bleak and dirty, the child finds pleasure in curiosity.

3. On Voice: “Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your own words have the feel of you about them.”

Some disregard ‘voice’ as a pretentious buzzword used by caffeinated literati. Fortunately, Heaney elegantly explains that it is not your audience who confirms your voice, but you. It is an undeniable sensation. In the essay, Heaney goes on to reinforce the notion that your individuality is supreme:

“The idea was that a voice is like a fingerprint, possessing a constant and unique signature that can, like a fingerprint, be recorded and employed for identification.”

4. On Technique: Technique…involves not only a poet’s way with words, his management of meter, rhythm, and verbal texture; it involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality.


Continuing with the insistence that your own identity is key, Heaney separates craft and technique, insisting that the latter is merely what “wins competitions in The New Statesman. In the end, you are the most important aspect of your poetry. The first stanza of “Digging” shows how his technique is inextricably linked to his place among his vision:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.
Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

5. On Portraying the Action: “A poem can survive artistic blemishes, but it cannot survive a stillbirth. The crucial action is pre-verbal.”

There is a lot of classical verse that invokes the muse to aid in the composition of a poem, but Heaney believes that it is in fact the vision, the movement, the action that invokes the witness. Most poets can attest to their “inspiration”being stifled at the first stroke a pen. Heaney believes you must take those vital seances busying your mind’s eye and write, write until the visioned is fulfilled.

6. On Living as a Poet: “You are confirmed by the visitation of the last poem and threatened by the elusiveness of the next one, and the best moments are those when your mind seems to implode and words and images rush of their own accord into the vortex.”

Heaney’s images appear like, well, items forcefully dug out of the ground. Such quotes confirm that Heaney was constantly digging, patiently searching for that next epiphanous moment to put down on the page. Even if you disregard his idiosyncratic technique, though, there is no doubting that an unmatched intensity pushes his poems forward. Consider “Death of a Naturalist”:

There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles.

Heaney does not see sudden inspiration as a singular image, but rather as a specific set of sounds colliding with a specific set of memories. And again, much more is said about what is overlooked than what is right in front of him. It is within these particular visions that Heaney rethinks the function of memory in poetry. It is not about their retrieval, but about their painstaking reassembly.

7. On The Magic of Poetry: “…a man dabbles in verse and finds out they are his life”


Your Degree is not Useless: 8 Invaluable Skills You Will Gain From Studying Literature

I woke up this morning to see that Buzzfeed had recently put out an article about the misconceptions of being an English major. The content of this article is puerile at best and, in my opinion, does more to push prospective students away from literature. Furthermore, recent articles such as this one posted by The Wall Street Journal have once again revived the idea that the language arts are a leisurely pursuit.

Fortunately, they have it all wrong.

There’s no use arguing that the now-popular STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are essential to adapting the workforce to the rising digital age, but as automation continuously removes whole sectors of jobs from the market, we must consider alternative ways of vocation. While rising tuition costs have driven people away from the Humanities for fear that they may not be employed, this new wave of automation leaves us asking pressing questions. What skills, for example, will be essential in the future? In ten, twenty or thirty years, who will be the most valuable thinkers?

Here are ten reasons why you should never underestimate the power of advanced literacy and artistic creation:

1. Critical Thinking

Outlook For The Future

Increasingly automated machine learning is already causing massive changes in the job market all over the world. Any actions that a computer can learn just as easily as we can will no longer require a human contribution.

What You Gain

The type of thinking learned from studying literature is completely different than what computers are learning. The detection of irony, of an unreliable voice or of an ulterior subtext within a reading are much harder to detect by machine. A supercomputer may be able to process information, but can it assign a value to the quality of one’s persuasion?

2. Creativity

Outlook For The Future

Web-based publishing are quickly bridging the gap between the medium and the message. With websites like WordPress, Tumblr, Facebook and LinkedIN providing high-quality platforms for expression, soon we will be seeing the democratization of content.

What You Gain

Many tech entrepreneurs have promoted the virtues of learning difficult programming, but those seeking to make a name for themselves via the internet will be able to concentrate more time on making good content, and less time and money on a suitable platform.

One of the most valuable skills you gain from studying literature is the recognition of creativity. With hundreds of thousands of companies vying for supremacy across social platforms, marketing is becoming more and more of a war of attrition for airtime. Only the most creative and audacious ideas will stand out.

3. Genuine Empathy

Outlook for the Future

I would be understating the importance of Facebook if I said that it has alienated us from “real life”, but social media has likely changed the dynamics of social interaction forever. As billions more join these online platforms, a growing need for genuine, interpersonal empathy will arrive.

What You Gain

One of the veritable landmark studies from the past decade posits that reading fiction is one of the most effective ways to cultivate empathy. As pessimistic as it sounds, a genuinely (I am purposefully repeating this word) altruistic approach to everything from app production to business management will be more valued than you expect. If companies will want popular opinion on their side, they will want to be represented by those who know how to empathize.

4. Speedreading

Outlook for the Future

As more and more software becomes able to read segments of text, our ability (or rather our will) to read large texts will dwindle. We will rely on computers to summarize.

What You Gain

I firmly believe in the ability to improve our cognitive sharpness through reading, and as I mentioned before, automation of reading will leave more complex, ambiguous texts in the dust. Being able to read large texts will not only improve your patience, but it will make you an important asset in a world moving at a mile-a-minute.

5. Reading the Big Picture > Big Data

Outlook for the Future

‘Big Data’ has recently been the buzzword around Silicon Valley and abroad. Many of the next decade’s major statistical findings will come as a result of amassed information from applications that require user information. Everything from traffic to pregnancy will be greatly affected.

What You Gain

The surge in big data is currently sending shockwaves through the STEM departments, but society’s growing dependence on this type of information may result in people seeking a contrary opinion. Rapid technological change often brings upon resurgence of more personal texts that highlight the exception rather than the norm, and there will be a growing audience seeking to move away from this subjection to macrocosmic inferences. The realist novels of the 19th century, for example, persuaded public opinion on major social issues because of their foray into urban and rural microcosms.

6. Concentration

Outlook for the Future

The inability for youth who have grown up on smartphones and computers to concentrate will become a gigantic problem for companies looking for patient and disciplined people

What You Gain

While some of you may associate reading with lazily rocking in a hammock on a breezy summer day, spending an afternoon with a difficult book is nevertheless an accomplishment in concentration that fewer and fewer people are able to do without browsing the internet or fiddling on their smartphone. Patient minds that can process a consistent stream of information will become increasingly valuable.

7. ‘Self’-Creation

Outlook for the Future

Social networks like Facebook and LinkedIN have already helped thousands turn from average people into celebrity personas, simply by allowing them to express themselves on a global scale. In the next few decades, this persona creation will become even more malleable and customizable, and your personality will not be limited by the medium you are using.

What You Gain

The finest resource for character and story creation is, of course, fiction. Characters like F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby would not be so alluring were it not for their ability to use fiction and rumor to their advantage. Today, interesting and attractive personalities are marketable. But soon, you will be able to be irresistible.

8. The Ability to Shock and Awe


Outlook for the Future

The retirement of the baby-boom generation and the growth of automated machines will provide a huge portion of the population with spare time. While it is impossible to conclude that art is either better or worse in modern society, it is certain that this extra time spent reading and watching TV/film will cause people to demand more refined, interesting and thought-provoking works. As bleak as it may sound, entertainment will need to bewilder its idle audience.

What You Gain

Sure, you may think, literature is not as “applicable” in this day and age. This is a very erroneous notion; the quantity of entertainment one is exposed to every day is staggering, but the Youtube videos that once impressed people in 2006 will seem less novel now. Every day, though, the price of using high quality resources is shrinking. Self-publishing is now a simple process. Billions have access to high definition video. With much of the world now able to create and communicate at the fraction of the price it used to cost, the need to move your audience will become more and more valuable. Those able to inspire catharsis, then, will reap significant rewards.