David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Death of the Natural


When Algernon Swinburne died in 1909, William Butler Yeats, not yet 40, is reported to have said to his sister, “Now I’m king of the cats.” Yeats would die in 1939. Born that same year was Seamus Heaney, future cat king and Derry man.

With his passing last week, Heaney is survived by his wife, Marie, and his children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.

And by the rest of us, too.

He was buried Monday in the soil of his native County Derry next to his brother Christopher, who died at the age of three. It was this brother who Heaney elegized in an early poem, often anthologized, “Mid-Term Break.”

How odd or fitting or ghoulish that Heaney’s death occurs the very week the British Parliament rejected a military response to the Assad regime’s poisonous crimes against the compromised Syria liberation movement and innocent civilians. The cynic in me wants to snap, “Got tired of tribal warfare after all, did we?”

Anyway odd, as I say, because the very underbody of Heaney’s poems possesses a distaste for political violence, no more so than a distaste for partition.

Not that he was a stranger to the Troubles. Loyalists threatened his life. His poems seemed always to veer between waysides of mindfulness and public utterance burdened by private weight. He rejected calls to write propagandistic poems. He viewed the eating-of-one’s-own purities of the IRA as frantically tribal. He sympathized with loyalist protestors last year when raising the Union flag was limited to the city hall of Belfast. There is “never going to be a united Ireland,” he said as reported in the Belfast Telegraph, so “why don’t you let them fly the flag?”

Still, it’s Heaney’s tangling with the urgencies of political convolution and those of poetic impulse that has always drawn me to his writing. That, and he had the best ear of any cat in the business. His renditions of our nouns and verbs as “pure being” are inspirational to any poet who cares about the musicality of the art. I say “our” nouns and verbs but that’s not quite right. Heaney wrote in a language imposed upon his Irish tongue. He wrote both in English and against it. Thankfully he remained separate in a crucial sense from this poetic age of ersatz-modernism and Internet-fried flarfists who aggregate Google searches into substitute verse from the basements of their mother’s houses. Heaney was famously a den poet. He was no Astro turfer. Instead he played on natural grass, or natural bog. He was poetic naturalist. In every sense, the natural.

He makes the case for the commonplace as the heart of his poetic imagination at the top of his Nobel lecture in 1995 “Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.”

And yet, thinking of Heaney’s burial today as I write this, thinking further about the impact of the 3500 political funerals across Ireland during the years of the Troubles, thinking even more of the 100,000 killed during the Syrian civil war…well, there’s so much to compare there, Ireland and Syria. What would a negotiated settlement look like in Syria? Partition? Or a return to civil war? Boot-heeled despotism? Is Syria to be united?

Let’s remember that, vis a vis Ireland, to be a “Unionist” meant that you were someone who favored union of Britain with the six counties of Northern Ireland. Christopher Hitchens succinct clarification follows:

“The 1921 partition of Ireland was not just a division of the island but a division of the northeastern province of Ulster. Historically this province contained nine counties. But only four—Antrim, Armagh, Derry, and Down—had anything like a stable Protestant majority. Three others—Monaghan, Cavan, and Donegal—were overwhelmingly Catholic. The line of pro-British partition attempted to annex the maximum amount of territory with the minimum number of Catholic and nationalist voters. Two largely Catholic counties, Fermanagh and Tyrone, petitioned to be excluded from the “Unionist” project. But a mere four counties were thought to be incompatible with a separate state; so the partition of Ireland, into twenty-six counties versus six, was also the fracturing of Ulster.”

Division. Majority. Sectarianism. Territory. Exclusion. Incompatibility. Separation. Fracture.

This very lexicon from Northern Ireland that found its way into Heaney’s most public poetry is the same one we are speaking regarding the murderous mess in Damascus.

There’s a case to be made that Heaney’s poetry worked its way into the British political mind. Sectarian homicide does not lead to peace is his civic utterance. The vote in Parliament against intervention, close as it was, is an argument as much against the history of British colonialism and the notion of external interference, though it’s worth pausing to note that the partitioning of the Middle East during the 1920’s gave Britain control of Palestine and France control of Syria. That vote was also a rebuke of the Bush era of continuous war in the Middle East. The rebuke was, in a word, Heaneyesque.

Though he was a Catholic born in Northern Ireland, and a nationalist, he chose to live in the South. He declined the post of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Nothing against the Queen, I’m sure, but he was no royalist. It was all a civilized kind of mishmash. He was more of a Wordsworthian than a Yeatsian. A Kavanaugh man not a Keatsian.

Like Wordsworth, who was repulsed by the violence he witnessed in France during the Revolution, Heaney found his political argument in legend and lore, saga and story. You see it in several of his masterworks — “The Tollund Man,” “Casualty,” “The Republic of Conscience,” to name three.

Therein he found his great redemptive voice. It’s one he shares with Auden and Frost, with Patrick Kavanaugh. He formed a brotherhood of poets with Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott and, above all, Robert Lowell. These are poets for whom history is something to be converted into the contemporary. And vice versa. These are poets who embody the idea that poetry is the art of empathy. Or, if not empathy, then surely tolerance.

I learned the news of Heaney’s passing from a tweet posted by Katha Pollitt. Though I was not scheduled to return to writing Poetry Wire until this week, I wondered if I shouldn’t write something immediately.

heaney2Luckily I didn’t have to. Others took to pixel and print right away. Flipping dutifully through the press I have found much to delight in: There’s Robert Pinsky’s sweet portrayal of Heaney in the earliest days of Slate, Henri Cole’s amazingly-recalled lunch with Heaney near Harvard in the New Republic, reporter Kevin Cullen’s tales of an outing with Heaney in a Cambridge bar in the Boston Globe, Dan Chiasson’s first thoughts about his thoughts stolen by the news of Heaney’s death, Christopher Benfey’s memories of Heaney in the creative writing workshop in NYRB, a handful of reminiscences on the Boston Review site.

No doubt there are others from obituaries to more personal observances. I haven’t looked at them all. I actually feel grief-struck although my personal relationship with Heaney is beyond limited. It cannot compare, in any sense whatsoever, to those who knew him well, or knew him even in passing. Seamus Heaney has been an important, influential poet to me my entire adult life, that is all.

I mean, his verse is under my skin. His verbs are inside my veins. His metaphors are in my nervous system. His moral clarity is a light inside my own, shall we say, republic of conscience.

Since his death my wife Wendy and I have been asking one question again and again. It’s the same question we asked ourselves after Ted Kennedy died. After Czeslaw Milosz died. More recently, after Adrienne Rich died. Who is now left to do the work so well? The rest of us, I should hope.

Read those quickly-penned personal accounts, and you’ll see that Heaney was warm and generous. He was fair-minded and sweet, uncompromising politically, and a mensch. He was self-possessed and often forthright.

Which is to say, Heaney the man resembled Heaney the poet.

I spent just a few hours with him one afternoon and evening in the late 1980’s. He’d given a reading in the Washington, DC area. 300 hundred people attended. This was before Heaney could command an audience ten times that in the post-Nobel years. The reading was a sensation. He concluded with a tender poem, “A Peacock’s Feather,” about a newly born English niece. The poem is part christening, part border crossing.

His introduction to reading that poem on that day was, I remember, something like, “My wife and I arrived to greet our newborn niece. But being young and not thinking, we forgot to bring a gift. ‘Quick,’ my wife whispered, ‘upstairs with you to write a poem.’ Thus inspired…!”

We repaired afterward with some other poets for a few pints at a nearby haunt. He was a good drinking companion for the rounds I sat in on. And, let us please agree that, in the lexicon of good living, being hailed a good drinking companion is meant as high tribute. I had to leave early, I remember, but I can’t think of why.

Of course, we drank Guinness.


Now the king of cats is laid to rest. Long live the king.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →