NPR Story
5:18 pm
Fri August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney, Considered Ireland's Greatest Poet Since Yeats, Dead at 74

Originally published on Fri August 30, 2013 5:23 pm

Irish poet Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and penned 13 collections of poetry, two plays and four books on the process of writing poetry.

He was widely considered the country’s greatest poet since William Butler Yeats.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said, “There are no words to describe adequately our nation’s and poetry’s grief.”

Heaney’s early work surrounded the rural experience, but later writings took on the political and cultural struggles in Ireland.

He had been recuperating from a stroke since 1996 and died in a Dublin hospital. He was 74.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham sent us these thoughts on Heaney’s death:

When death takes one of their great poets, an event which happens only a few times in a century to any given people, in any given language, there is always a terrifying silence that follows. Who will sing our soil, our inner secrets, our history, our transactions between those two, our loves? One lives to feel the passing of a such a voice rarely, maybe once in a lifetime, and today is one of those days for so many humans on this earth. Heaney was necessary to people speaking his language — a language which he, more than anyone, traced back to its living roots in Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, though never losing its local inflection. That he was also necessary to people speaking so many other languages, on this beautiful and war-torn and lonely planet, is a testament to the universality of his soul’s singing. Today many will pick up his books to hear him momentarily again. He will give them back the depth of their being, awaken their sprits. quicken their hearts. He will awaken them to the complexity of existence, the mystery of mortality, and help them take the measure of the heartbreaking conflicts and confusions of history without ever losing the sense of the horizon at which history and poetry may rhyme. And then he will be read down the centuries as long as there are readers. As for the man, so many people will miss him desperately in what they will feel is an intimate way, as he was an astonishing friend. Rare indeed is the man about whom it can be said that the greatness of his soul is matched by its goodness. It is a sad day indeed when his early words “between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests” take on their late meaning. His words will not rest. His breath is in them, even now.

Seamus Heaney on 'Heard' versus 'Herd'

Guest

  • Robert Pinsky, American poet, literary critic and translator. He served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. He tweets @RobertPinsky.
Copyright 2013 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

But right now, we want to remember the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.

SEAMUS HEANEY: Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests, snug as a gun. Under my window, a clean rasping sound when the spade sinks into gravelly ground. My father, digging.

YOUNG: That's Heaney reading the opening lines of his famous poem, "Digging." He was the third Irishman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, joining William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett. He was prolific, writing two plays, 13 collections of poetry and four books on the process of writing poetry.

He was the oldest of nine children, a Catholic, born in County Derry in Northern Ireland. In his Nobel address, he remembers his childhood fondly, a time when he and his siblings lived a kind of den life, which is more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. But that wouldn't last.

He attended a Catholic school in Londonderry, a place where Catholics outnumbered Protestants, 2-1, but were gerrymandered from power. That what his first case of the Irish struggles, which would seep into his later work, something he said many poets felt somehow obligated to do. But eventually he said, he didn't have anymore to say, so he went back to writing about the land that he loved.

Well, Jeremy and I now welcome his friend Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate, poetry editor for Slate magazine and a professor of poetry at Boston University. Robert, I'm sure you remember the first time you met Seamus Heaney.

ROBERT PINSKY: I do. I can remember we discovered we both could quote Hardy and Frost from memory. And we quoted poetry to one another and had an immediate affinity. This is a man whom people liked. He was a great artist who's also a great spirit. He's a really decent person. As I used to enjoyed calling him, Seamus was a mensch.

YOUNG: A mensch. Robert, we are sorry for your loss because he was a dear friend. But what do we all lost?

PINSKY: He had a sense of other people and of occasion that unequaled in my experience. I've seen him at birthday parties, little lunches. I've seen him at immense public occasions. He had an, you know, we'd call it cunning, except cunning implies something self-serving. He was just this very shrewd and generous way of understanding people one at a time and in groups. And that personal quality is there in the poetry, that kind of tack and ability to place himself in a way that's neither grandiose nor backward, very unusual in writing and in a person. And in Seamus' case, it's there in both ways.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well, I know you have some poetry there with you. We'd love to have you read one of your favorites.

PINSKY: What if I read the entire poem you played the beginning of - in a way, it's nervy because Seamus read so beautifully. Here it goes.

YOUNG: Mm-hmm.

PINSKY: "Digging:" Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests, snug as a gun. Under my window, a clean rasping sound when the spade sinks into gravelly ground. My father, digging. I look down till his straining rump among the flowerbeds bends low, comes up 20 years away, stooping in rhythm through potato drills where he was digging. The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep to scatter new potatoes that we picked, loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade just like his old man. My grandfather cut more turf in a day than any other man on Toner's bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle, corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up to drink it then fell to right away, nicking and slicing neatly. Heaving sods over his shoulder, going down and down for the good turf, digging. 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.

That last line, I'll dig with it, you can emphasize any one of those words. You can say, I'll dig with it. I'll dig with it. I'll dig with it. And it's a line worthy of the son and grandson of these expert farmers. It's so plain, and it's so absolutely right and subtle at the end of the poem. I'll dig with it.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: But, Robert Pinsky, what else would you want us to know about Seamus?

PINSKY: When you read the lives of great writers, they're often not very nice people. They have a lot of pettiness, a lot of nastiness. And I've said to myself, thank God for Anton Chekhov. I mean, he was a very generous person and a great writer. Seamus belongs in that category.

HOBSON: Well, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky remembering his friend, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who died in a Dublin hospital earlier today at the age of 74. Robert Pinsky, thank you so much for joining us.

PINSKY: I'm glad to have been here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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