Monday, 30 September 2013

Poetic licence

Cultural therapy

Nothing beats the arts and culture as a rousing way to escape from the routine and stresses of everyday living.  
The choice is infinite.  Treat yourself to a trip to the cinema or theatre, maybe a live concert of music or dance, or pay a visit to an art gallery or a museum.

But stop right there.  Literature deserves a special mention.  One of the most rewarding ways to relax is to immerse the mind in a good book.

Not only does it sweep the reader away from normal preoccupations, but the imagination will be stimulated and caressed by creative words that can in turn excite, soothe and revive the spirit.

Just as music has the power to remind its alert listener of a pleasant event or to transport her and him somewhere beyond the reach of mundane experience, well-crafted literature will grab the attention in a process of total absorption, nonpareil.  It will also appeal to the senses and appetites - inspiring thought and possibly making the reader feel better. 


For the most part the type of book that cocoons me is fiction, involving crime, politics, lawyers, maybe even some incidental trysting, and most importantly narrated in a real global setting.
Much as I enjoy non-fiction, such as travel writing and journalistic reportage of actual events, nothing combats stress better than being so enraptured by a story as to be barely able to wait to know what will happen on the next page. Hours evaporate.

To be suspended on tenterhooks, at the same time as learning from the author’s intellect and knowledge about a crucial situation somewhere in the world mixes escapism with reality.  
At first sight this proposition seems paradoxical, but it is in fact quite a combination - in the hands of great writers.

Exceptional playwrights and poets can achieve the same effect.

Poet laureates

In one of life’s great perversions, the appeal of one branch of literature has received a mighty boost.  This comes as a result of the premature death of the man who had been acknowledged as the greatest living poet writing in the English language.
As Britain’s poet laureate since 2009 Carol Ann Duffy expressed it,

Seamus Heaney “became the poet whom other poets measured themselves against.  His dazzling fame and glittering prizes did not blind him to his perception of poetry as a vocation, a calling, and he never lost a craftsman’s sense of humility in his relationship to his art...He is irreplaceable.”

Praise could hardly be more emphatic.

Ted Hughes was Britain’s poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998.   
Heaney and Hughes had co-edited the popular anthologies The Rattle Bag (1982) and The School Bag (1997), among other projects.
Writing of the death of his great friend, Heaney’s emotions were expressed with these visceral words: 
“No death outside my immediate family has left me feeling more bereft.  No death in my lifetime has hurt poets more...His creative powers were, as Shakespeare said, still crescent.  By his death, the veil of poetry is rent and the walls of learning broken.”

Curriculum vitae

To consider the man properly, allow me to summarise Heaney’s literary career. 

He was the author of over 20 volumes of poetry and criticism, and edited several widely used anthologies. 

His poetry books include the following:
Death of a Naturalist 1966, Door into the Dark 1969, Wintering Out 1972, North 1975, Field Work 1979, Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish 1984, Station Island 1984, The Haw Lantern 1987, Seeing Things 1991, The Spirit Level 1996, Opened Ground: Selected Poems (1966-1996) 1998, Electric Light 2001, District and Circle 2006, and Human Chain 2010.

As a translator, Heaney’s most famous work is the translation of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (2000).   

He also translated the fifteenth century Scottish poet Robert Henryson’s Middle Scots classic and follow-up to Chaucer, The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables in 2009.

He translated Sophocles[1] with two major works.  One was a version of "Philoctetes," composing the play The Cure at Troy.  The other was The Burial at Thebes, a version of Sophocles’ Antigone.  It was later turned into an opera by the West Indian poet and Nobel laureate (1992).  Walcott’s opera based on Heaney’s play was performed at the Globe Theatre in London, and attended by both Nobel literature laureates.

November 1962 marked the date of the first Heaney poem to appear in print when the Belfast Telegraph published Tractors.  The only other example of early published work (of which I am aware) is a collection entitled Eleven Poems.[2]

He also published nine works of prose including The Fire i' the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1975, Preoccupations: Selected Prose, (1968-1978) 1980, The Redress of Poetry 1995, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, (1971-2001) 2002.

I know not how he found the time, but he also had a peripatetic academic career. 
This was crowned by his appointment in 1984 to the impressively entitled position of Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University.  He taught there until 2006.   

As if that was not enough, he also served as the Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1989 to 1994.

He even had an incidental career in broadcasting.  
He appeared and sometimes even presented programmes on British[3] and Irish TV[4] and radio.  
They are an important part of his legacy, not least because of the mellifluous quality of his vocal delivery.  
Moreover, these programmes continue to enrich our lives as, for example, BBC Radio 4 features their recording of his reading of Beowulf as their Book of the Week during the first week of October 2013.

His TV and radio broadcasts illustrate his commanding power in using English conversationally.  
To pick a couple at random, these tell me a lot about the man:

“Poet is a large word.  To allow yourself to be called poet is to consecrate yourself.  Before I was a probationer or a deacon.”

“Insouciance is the best situation for writing lyric poetry.”

Listening to Heaney, his propensity to quote English poets from memory impresses.  I take it  as a sign of his admiration.   
These include Gerard Manly Hopkins, Keats, TS Elliot, WH Auden, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and William Wordsworth.


If the extensive lists of books published and prestigious posts in academia provide a quantitative impression of his career, his awards are an emphatic indicator and proof of its quality.

Heaney’s literary career got off to a flying start when his first collection, “Death of a Naturalist,” was awarded the Somerset Maugham poetry prize in 1967.  It also won some other prizes.
He won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1996 for “The Spirit Level” and again in 1999 for his translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem “Beowulf.”  His volume District and Circle” (2006) won the T.S. Eliot Prize.  This is the most prestigious poetry award in the UK, according to the Poetry Foundation.

His prose likewise won prizes.  His book “Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001” (2002) earned the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, the largest annual prize for literary criticism in the English language.

The ultimate accolade, of course, was his receipt in 1995 of the Nobel Prize in Literature 'for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.''

In addition to these book prizes and the Nobel prize, he was awarded some notable honorariums.  For example, he was an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature,[5] as well as a commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters.


The unequivocal praise heaped on the great poet in the immediate aftermath of his passing articulates the national and international esteem which Seamus Heaney earned through the mastery of his craft.  
I present some examples.

President Bill Clinton, who had quoted the passage from Heaney’s Cure at Troy on a visit to Belfast:

“More than a brilliant artist, Seamus was a joy to be with and a warm and caring friend.  His wonderful work, like that of fellow Irish Nobel Prize winners Shaw, Yeats and Beckett, will be a lasting gift for all the world.”

Roy Foster, professor of history at Oxford University:

“The distinctiveness of his poetry was unmistakable: a Heaney poem carried its maker's mark on the blade... Heaney's erudition was immense, and his lectures on literature at Oxford, Harvard and worldwide made wonderful reading and unparalleled listening. They illustrate his openness to world literature and classical history as well as his deep love of unexpected English poets such as Clare and Wordsworth[6]...”

Liam Neeson, the Hollywood actor:

“Ireland, and Northern Ireland especially, has lost a part of its artistic soul.   He crafted, through his poetry, who we are as a species and the living soil that we toiled in.  He defined our place in the universe.”


It seems slightly discordant to discover that, despite what Heaney did to promote English as the poetic language of our culture, there seems to have been some reticence to join the international acclaim in his home region.   
A senior columnist in the Belfast Telegraph commented[7]:

“.... the reaction from within unionism was muted.   For all the bleat and empty twaddle talked about a shared future, this was one occasion – now missed forever – where we could have seen a really strong and emphatic united response from the two big parties.  We could have seen a true demonstration of shared pride in this great poet and the luminous, humane values that he stood for.   So the public face of Heaney's passing was a one-dimensionally green affair.  Unlike the popular response, which was a glorious rattle bag of colours, tributes from all kinds of unexpected people, who had experienced the quiet power and honesty of Heaney's words.”

If this comment is accurate, I take comfort in the opinion of Helen Vendler, Professor at Harvard University:

“Seamus Heaney is a poet of Ireland, but of the whole world.”

Jenny McCartney, the Sunday Telegraph columnist, describing herself as from a "Protestant, unionist family outside Belfast" headlined an article in the Spectator (7 Sept 2013) that -
"Seamus Heaney's poems are for Protestants too."  
She considers his poems including Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, Docker, Punishment, and The Strand at Lough Beg.  She observes that -
"his 1995 Nobel lecture dealt profoundly with the stultifying effect of political violence."

The Times in London which produced a fulsome 2-page obituary[8] the day after his death.  It said:

 “Post-Yeats but pre-Heaney, Ireland was a middle-ranking poetic power. With Heaney, it dominated the landscape...Heaney refused, to become a poster boy for the nationalist cause or a Republican pamphleteer...”

The same paper’s editorial added:

“In the great literary tradition of the island of Ireland, Heaney was distinctive.  One reason was his immunity to the quasi-mystical claims of national identity that have caused so much destruction in modern times...While never allowing himself to be seen as political spokesman for any side...Heaney was ever suspicious of the ideological certainties promoted by partisans of all sides in Ireland’s conflict.”

Our culture is a source of pride.

Apart from Seamus Heaney and other poets such as Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon and Sinead Morrissey, we have classical musicians of international standing like James Galway and Barry Douglas, we have produced great writers like Oscar Wilde and CS Lewis, and artists like William Conor.  We also have playwrights like Brian Friel and a number of the world’s greatest actors of stage and screen.

The arts enrich our lives, they give us a cultured reputation in the world and, coincidentally, they boost the earnings element of our regional wealth.  
Cultural tourism is a valuable asset, as the creative arts enrich us in the other sense.

Personal reminiscences

The Times authoritative obituary referred at one point to the influence of the Scottish Professor of English at Queens University Belfast, John Braidwood, on Seamus Heaney.

The academic introduced his student to Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, according to the Times, “joining him in a train of thought that linked the bogs of Denmark – the source for his celebrated Tollund Man sequence of poems – and ultimately to Beowulf.”

This account resonated strongly with me as a result of a chance encounter with the then Emeritus Professor in 1985.  We had never met previously.
At breakfast on the morning after I made a presentation about Omagh Arts Festival to the Arts Council Northern Ireland annual conference, he noticed my name tag.  Within a few minutes he had enthralled me with a succinct appraisal of the origins in Old Norse of my surname.

He was also able to define its Scots Gaelic derivation, as well as the anglicised versions.  Some weeks later, he posted me a photocopy of an academic article about the clan name.
This confirmed beyond doubt his earlier unrehearsed verbal account.  It also cemented the veracity of the Times’ glowing tribute to his former student.

I salute Seamus Heaney’s support for the work of the community group, Bellaghy Development Association, to regenerate his home village.  In the course of that project, when I was the town planner on the advisory team, I met him several times.

On one occasion, he was presenting the Department of the Environment with original manuscripts of his work – as well as some personal items.   
The Department’s restoration of the village’s most historic building Bellaghy Bawn, a castle constructed during the Plantation of Ulster and an inspirational influence on him, received a higher priority as a result of his support for the community group’s regeneration strategy.

On other occasions he attended events in Bellaghy.  
These included a village reception in 1996 to celebrate his award of the Nobel prize, the launch in 1997 and the official opening of the community group’s property project in 2000, and in April 2009 the unveiling of the Turfman sculpture adjacent to the Bawn.

 Seamus Heaney is welcomed to the unveiling of the Turfman in Bellaghy on 2 April 2009

I am the fortunate possessor of two mementoes which bear out anecdotes told by others about Seamus Heaney’s generosity and obliging manner.   
One is an autographed copy of Beowulf where he inscribes and quotes his translation with the words

“To Michael McSorley – “sure of his ground in strongroom and bawn” – p.18 and in Bellaghy too – Seamus Heaney May 2000.”

The other takes pride of place in my study.  It is a signed copy of his poem Digging. At the foot, he writes

“To Michael, who dug in Bellaghy – and kept going – Seamus 17 June 1997.”

I attended Seamus Heaney’s funeral in Bellaghy on the hot summer evening of 2 September 2013.   
The burial plot, beside his parents, sits next to an old stone wall, overlooked by two sycamore trees and an ash tree.   
Two renowned and accomplished musicians, Liam O’Flynn on uileann pipes and Neil Martin on cello, played appropriately haunting melodies.  

As an attentive journalist observed with prose bordering poetry, a swallow circled and swooped overhead as the haunting tune lingered, a detail which would not have been lost on the late poet[9].

The Parish Priest Fr Andrew Dolan (who was in my Latin class at school) told mourners the poet who “never really left Bellaghy” had come home.  He added that

 “the parish is honoured that Seamus Heaney chose to be buried here.  The name Seamus Heaney and this place will forever be entwined.”


In all the column inches and broadcast tributes eulogising the man and his work, expert critics have described Seamus Heaney variously as a nature poet, a love poet and as a war poet – life’s big themes, really.

To me, what impresses is his sheer word power, the subtlety of his references, and linguistic tools he uses to describe his subjects.  To echo my earlier observation, only the great writers can combine the imaginary and real world.

As a contemporary poet, he proves adept when moving from his trademark verses about the Ulster rural idyll to topics which preoccupy the modern world, issues like sex and violence.   

Heaney employs metaphors to sensory effect, as in the erotic imagining Skunk. 
And in Anything Can Happen, he adapts and ingeniously augments the Roman lyric poet Horace’s Ode 34 to illustrate the horror of New York City’s 9/11 catastrophe.

I also detect that Seamus Heaney had a musical ear.   
His use of onomatopoeia, never mind metaphor, resounds when I read Digging.  
It brings the subject to life when the poem plants a strong sense of the boggy earth in my nostrils and I can clearly hear the sounds of the turf spade:

“The cold smell of potato mould, 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.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.”

©Michael McSorley 2013

[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica says: Sophocles, (born c. 496 BC near Athens, died 406, Athens), with Aeschylus and Euripides, one of classical Athens’ three great tragic playwrights.
[2] Festival Publications, Queen’s University Belfast, Edition 1 published Nov.1965. (Edition 3,1967).
[4] RTE documentary “Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous”
[5] The Royal Society of Literature, founded by George IV in 1820.  At the heart of the RSL is its Fellowship, which encompasses the most distinguished authors working in the English language.
[6] Observer New Review 1Sept 2013 page 8.
[8] The Times 31 Aug 2013 ed. page 26; obit. Pages 76-77.
[9] Belfast Telegraph 3 Sept 2013 page 4. Anna Maguire.