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”


15 Essential Modern Irish Novels

It is difficult to dispute the place of James Joyce among the Pantheon of all literary greats, but Ireland has much more to offer than his modernist virtuosity. As a country that has suffered through famine, civil strife and poverty for decades, it is quite relieving to see just how rich their literary tradition actually is. Not only is it the ancestral home of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, but many of the finest active writers have a firm footing on the contemporary fiction scene. Here are some of the finest works from the post-Joycean era:

1. Edna O’Brien – The Country Girls (1960)

Edna O’Brien is a masterful prose writer who captured an era with a keen eye for the subtle and personal. Written during some of the most repressive years in Ireland after the Second World War, The Country Girls follows two adolescents as they leave the strife and alcoholism of rural life and seek greener pastures in the capital, Dublin.

2. Walter Macken – The Silent People (1962)

Part two of a century-spanning trilogy, The Silent People follows Dualta Duane, an Irishmen fleeing the authorities twenty years before the Irish famine will wipe out a large fractin of the Irish population. Largely focusing on the oppressive practices of the English, this novel provides a good dose of action to counter the bleakness of its social realism.

3. James Plunkett – Strumpet City (1969)

Plunkett’s novel about Dublin during its most destitute days is in some sense the anti-Ulyssean novel. Taking us from the lowest depths of society to the exclusive institutions of wealth that held the poor back, Strumpet City describes Dublin during the days of the Great Lockout, which left tens of thousands poor and starving. It is social realism at its best–strikingly real but nonetheless redeeming.

4. J.G. Farrell – Troubles (1970)

The first part of Farrell’s Empire Trilogy tells the story of an English general discharged from the army after the First World War and stuck in a seaside hotel in the country’s south-east. Like many Irish novels, Troubles puts great emphasis on the split between the Irish and the English, but as the title of the larger work suggests, the setting and Farrell’s situation speaks to an even grander continental divide.

5. John Banville – Birchwood (1973)

Banville combines two different literary genres–gothic fiction and magic realism–in this short tale about Gabriel, a young man feeling the pinch of living on a decaying estate with his mad father and, angry mother and bitter grandmother. But when he escapes to the circus, he meets a set of eccentric characters that allow him to discover the most colorful aspects of life and, of course, Ireland.

6. Molly Keane – Good Behaviour (1981)

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 10.03.46 AM

There is something particularly refreshing about Keane’s fiction. Instead of relying on the more common tropes of Irish fiction, she chooses rather to create dramatic, often cruel novels about the domestic affairs of the average Irish. This novel, which opens with the murder of the protagonist’s mother, unfolds into a meditation about the banality and locality of evil.

7. John McGahern – Amongst Women (1990)

Unlike many Irish novels, Amongst Women turns away from stories of violence and turmoil and instead goes in the opposite direction. When Michael Moran’s days as a freedom fighter in the army come to an end, he must raise a family of five alone of a farm that can barely garner any capital. McGahern’s novel is not an exploration of conflict as much as it is one of absence, and how one must overcome the difficulties of a life without an apparent purpose.

8. Roddy Doyle – The Van (1991)

The patriarch of the Rabbitte family, Jimmy, stars in Doyle’s third installment of the Barrytown trilogy, about he and his friend’s get rich-quick scheme of buying an old chip truck during the 1990 World Cup. Those familiar with the movie The Commitments (Adapted from the Doyle novel) will find the same sense of optimism pervading these pages; such a voice is nothing but life-affirming in times of financial struggle.

9. Dermot Healy – A Goat’s Song (1994)

Set on Ireland’s remote Mullet peninsula, Healy features several characters subsumed by their own guilt and failures now living their days in physical and emotional exile. Jack Ferris and actress Catherine, both chasing dreams that are rightfully unsure of, attempt to love each other amid their own shortcomings.

10. Colm Tóibín – The Blackwater Lightship (1999)

Tóibín is today a celebrated veteran who still receives accolades the world over, but this novel, about a contentious, middle-class family from South Dublin undergoing the pains of AIDS crisis while still in its violent prime. When the

11. Maeve Binchy – Scarlet Feather (2001)

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 10.05.46 AM

Maeve Binchy has brought the richness and color of Irish life to the average reader without giving up the quality of her work. In this novel, which focuses on the daily life of a middle-class Irish family trying to run a catering business, Binchy shows us just how difficult but rewarding trying to start anew in Dublin can be.

12. William Trevor – The Story of Lucy Gault (2002)

Lucy Gault’s story takes off where most Irish novels of  yesteryear had ended–when the revolutionary war prompts young Lucy’s parents to escape to England, she hides in the woods and lives alone in Ireland. Chronicling Lucy’s life up until the turn of the millennium, Trevor’s novel takes a look at how the passage of time is so sensitive to single, decisive actions, and how there are small but poignant ways to rebuild burnt bridges and rediscover lost memories.

13. Claire Keegan – Walk the Blue Fields (2007)

One of the reasons that Irish fiction is so widely celebrated is that its authors have an equally firm grasp on urban and rural fiction. Keegan’s collection of short stories surely captures the latter realm–stories as fantastical as folktales but as gritty as the landscape itself are worth savoring, or perhaps read slowly on a rainy day. Perfect for die-hard short fiction fans who keep Anton Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor close to their heart.

14. Anne Enright – The Gathering (2007)

The Irish family is as animate a character as the individuals who comprise it; Enright’s Booker-prize-winning effort is proof of it. When one of the nine children of an Irish family drowns in England, it forces the sister most affected by it to search through the unit’s past, uncovering a whole Pandora’s box of stories and secrets.

15. Kevin Barry – City of Bohane (2011)

The final and most recent selection on our list has almost nothing to do with all of the other novels, but as far as post-apocalyptic works go, Bohane is quintessentially Irish. About a fictional Irish city in the future, Barry’s envisions a place with inferior technology and little to no governance that still captures, for better or for worse,  the same Irish charm that makes the novels on this list so accessible and so beloved.