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”


How To Write Poetry: Five Pieces of Advice from E.E. Cummings

You will seldom find poetry that slips off the tongue as well as E.E. Cummings’. Writing some of his best verse at the height of the more serious modernist movement, he defied the popular conventions of his era and created an idiosyncratic and playful poetic that has inspired all types of poets. In his introduction to his own Collected Poems, as well as e.e. cummingsA Miscellany Revised, he teaches us–in his own unique way–how to weave a poem worthy of memory and whimsy.

1. On Technique: “I am abnormally fond of precision that creates movement “

Cummings uses more than just language to enliven the scene he creates. By scattering the verse into disorderly stanzas and unexpected caesuras, his poetry is less concerned with the meaning of words, and more concerned with the action it creates in your head. Consider this section from “Chansons Innocentes”:

picker of buttercups
And the big bullying daisies
through the field wonderful
with eyes a little sorry
Another comes
also picking flowers

The lines that descend like a staircase literally create the action of picking. Not only do we see the “tumbling hair” bending down to pick each specific flower, but the way that they are picked–spontaneously and sporadically–emphasize the subject’s enthusiasm.

2. On Creating Images: “[a poet] is somebody to whom things made matter very little-somebody who is obsessed by Making.”

Cummings is aware that a poem creates an image, and that an image is, well, simply a suspended presence in your head. He would rather show how it is created, and how a combination of images can create a further impression. His poem “i thank You God for this most amazing” captures the process of experiencing spiritual pleasure, one line at a time:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Cummings precedes the trees and the sky with respective metaphors. Here, he connects the process of an emerging day with its beauty, demonstrating that its unravelling is more important than its maintaining. The beauty of nature is better communicated in how we perceive it than how it “is” outside of our view.

3. On ignoring popular opinion: “Life, for mostpeople,simply isn’t” 

Cummings insists that you shouldn’t worry about what other people think, as “mostpeople”, that unit of people brought together by consensual consensus, will not understand the artistic pursuit that is poetry. You need to take pleasure in the “mystery of growing: the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves.” Do not write for others. Write with merely your vision in mind. He states that poets must adopt their own way of living, as mostpeople simply fail to do so:

What do mostpeople mean by ‘living’? They don’t mean living. They mean the latest and closest plural approximation to singular prenatal passivity which science, in its finite but unbounded wisdom, has succeeded in selling their wives.

Not exactly a poetic muse if I’ve ever seen one. In response, he suggests that individuality, or to be nobody but yourself, “means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

4. On Inspiration: “Everywhere tints childrening, innocent, spontaneous, true.”

Poets like William Wordsworth have insisted that it is in childhood that we are most perceptive and creative, but Cummings responds to such an adage in his own way. Cummings’ poetry is not about what is known, but about what is worth knowing, what is worth being curious about. Such is the process that amazes that child. Such is the process that best affirms our humanity.

His poem “may i feel said she” beautifully defines love without belittling his subject to a series of images already recycled ad nauseum by Renaissance love poets. In fact, it is the childlike curiosity within the courtship process that is most true:

may i feel said he
(i’ll squeal said she
just once said he)
it’s fun said she

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

(let’s go said he
not too far said she
what’s too far said he
where you are said she)

The poem uses a literary device known as stichomythia–a point/counterpoint dialogue that emphasizes the similarities and differences of each person’s opinion–and it creates an image of innocence fleeting more quickly than they can keep up. While I do not always agree with the expression “less is more”, the “childrening” of the conventional love poem makes the experience all-the-more universal.

5. “To all young people who wish to become poets is:”

“…do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world–unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight until you die.”