I have to admit. With a very few exceptions, I’m not a huge fan of poetry. By that I mean I don’t read a whole lot of it on a regular basis.
Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate coolcats like the Romantics- Blake, Lord Byron, Shelley, Keats- but I honestly think that I’m almost more interested in their histories than in their poetry (man, they lived some crazy lives!)
Ages ago I memorized both the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan – I do that, memorize stuff somewhat randomly*- but again, the whole story behind Coleridge, and the interruption of the composition of the latter poem is so rich, the poetry is almost- for me at least- secondary to the history behind the poetry.
(*Like all good Canadians I memorized Robert W. Service’s ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ (what? All Canadians don’t do that? I thought it was a requirement for passport renewal?) and still use it as one of my meditative prompts. When my brain is running too fast, I have a whole selection of poems and songs I run through my head to calm myself down. ‘There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold…’ has saved my sanity more than once. Johnny Cash recorded a spoken verse version of the poem.. It’s awesome- look for it.)
These days I tend to only engage with poetry set to music- those great lyrics and lyricists some of which/whom I’ve referenced here at colemining repeatedly. I love my songsmiths- and the ability they have to turn catchy phrases and match them with corresponding chords. Wish I could do that.
But there are some poets I retain a close relationship with (i.e guys I still pull off the shelf and read from time to time) and, interestingly, they all hail from the Emerald Isle.
I spoke about my love for William Butler Yeats here, how his mix of mythological themes and legendary traditions with elements of history can alternately chill the blood and warm the cockles of the heart.
A number of years ago- while taking Irish language and Celtic studies Undergraduate courses, my (fantastic) prof exposed me to the poetry of Cathal Ó Searcaigh, largely because he writes in Irish and reading him would help with my language learning. It did. But more than that, it helped me to understand the language- since Irish is imbued with poetry and music in its very foundations.
Cathal, from the Gaeltacht in County Donegal (a place close to my heart) did a reading at a Writer’s Fest one year (interestingly, it was on the same night as Wade Davis. I spoke about that here) and listening to him read- and speak- in his quietly lyrical voice, was a pretty powerful experience.
And then there is Seamus.
Poet, Playwright, Translator, Professor, Nobel Laureate. Like Yeats- to whom he was often compared- he is a born storyteller and used historical and mythological themes and images to describe and illuminate the vagaries of the contemporary world.
How can you look at this picture and not regret never having had the opportunity to have shared a drink with the man?
The Burial at Thebes, his 2004 play based on Sophocles’ Antigone critiques G.W. Bush’s administration and foreign policies. Seamus equated W. with Creon, who vacilated between preaching about upholding the will of the gods and the importance of family and ignoring these things in favour of the furtherance of his own political expediency.
His body of work is vast and comprehensive, and in light of his recent passing, has been examined and discussed far more impressively than I can possibly accomplish in a short post of remembrance and reverence. But I had to say something about him.
And about Station Island.
His 1984 collection of poems is all about discovery- of self-identity, spirituality and vocation. He uses the geography, mythology, history and religions of Ireland, imbued as it is with controversy and tension, to describe his own internal and realized pilgrimages to figure things out.
St. Patrick’s Purgatory, on Station Island, dates from the 5th century and in legendary tradition is the entrance to Hell. When Patrick, despairing of his would- be converts’ commitment to his message without substantiated proof, prayed to his god, he was shown the entrance as a means to demonstrate the existence of heaven, hell and purgatory.
The third section of the collection is called ‘Sweeney Redivivus’ evoking the story of Buile Shuibhne– ‘Mad Sweeney’, the legendary Irish king who is cursed by St. Ronan for his temper and opposition to the establishment of a Christian Church in his lands.
Station Island is an epic collection, with far more going on in its great depths than I can begin to encompass. But for me it is a very personal work. It came into my life in a period when I was trying to sort things out. Career direction, personal relationships, you know- LIFE. And somehow it seems to keep popping up whenever I need it to help me revisit those very same things.
It happened again this week, this time as a result of the saddest of circumstances- its author’s passing, at the age of 74.
Yesterday, the National Press described him, and his poetry, in this way:
“He left behind a half-century’s body of work that sought to capture the essence of his experience: the sour smells and barren beauty of Irish landscapes, the haunting loss of loved ones and of memory itself, and the tormented soul of his native Northern Ireland.
As one of the world’s premier classicists, he translated and interpreted ancient works of Athens and Rome for modern eyes and ears. A bear of a man with a signature mop of untamed silvery hair, he gave other writers and fans time, attention, advice – and left a legacy of one-on-one, life-changing moments encouraged by his self-deprecating, common-man touch.”
The Globe and Mail (via the New York Times) had this to say:
“Mr. Heaney’s poetry had a primeval, epiphanic quality and was often suffused with references to ancient myths – Celtic, of course, but also those of ancient Greece. His style, linguistically pyrotechnic, was at the same time conspicuously lacking in the obscurity that can attend poetic pyrotechnics.
At its best, his work had both a meditative lyricism and an airy velocity. His lines might carry a boggy melancholy, but they also, as often as not, communicated the wild onrushing joy of being alive.”
To me, he epitomizes the way that we learn, share and adapt the stories that come before us, using them to help make sense of our lives and experiences. He was one of my many tutors, helping to show me the power and the value of myth and history and how understanding of these things should inform our present and future.
With beauty and wit and compassion. Myth, history and life.
He will be missed, sorely. But he has left us with volumes of wisdom to help us carry on figuring things out.
Fare well indeed, Seamus. And thank you.