Saturday, August 31, 2013
I credit poetry… both for being itself and for being a help.
Seamus Heaney, Nobel Lecture, “Crediting Poetry”
Seamus Heaney died yesterday. I think it was sometime in 1996 when I first “met” him. I was driving along Minnesota 169, either between meetings or perhaps going to the hospital to visit a parishioner. Minnesota Public Radio was broadcasting the Guthrie Global Voices lecture from that year (1996) – and it was then I heard that magnificent voice. Heaney, who had been awarded the Noble Prize for Literature the previous year, used the Guthrie Lecture to read some of his poems and offer a few comments in between. To my delight the program was also being broadcast later that evening, 9 p.m., and I recorded as much of it as I could get on one-side of a ninety-minute cassette tape. He has been a companion in the car through the years, and one regret I have about newer vehicles is that they no longer have tape players. I can no longer listen to Heaney’s rich Irish voice coming from the tape player in the car.
That reading led me to Heaney’s books. Many of the poems he read at the Guthrie were being published that same year in his book The Spirit Level, and it remains one of my favorites. There one finds the poem dedicated to his brother and in praise of the virtue of “keeping going.” It is an underappreciated virtue in the complexity of our modern world. The book also has Heaney resurrecting the myth of the Irish saint, Kevin, who, while praying with his arm extended out the window of his small monastic cell, has a blackbird come and make a nest and lay eggs. The image of nurturing life feeds my pastoral imagination.
The Spirit Level contains poems with memorable lines:
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open (“Postscript”)
So walk on air against your better judgement (“The Gravel Walks”)
For Heaney, poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. (Crediting Poetry, 10)
One poem that particularly grabbed hold of me in the Guthrie reading was a chorus that Heaney had added to a Sophocles’ play he had translated. I could not find it in print at the time, so I transcribed it from his reading. While I have since found it in print, his reading of it that day was slightly different, for in the reading he repeated the chorus’ most famous line twice:
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So Heaney’s voice has now gone silent, but not in my heart. In his poetry and voice, one believes that hope and history can rhyme (something I understand to be the work of God’s people in the world – working with the Spirit to help hope and history rhyme).
Thank you Mr. Heaney. Your poetry is a help, a help in keeping going, a help in moving me to walk on air against my better judgement. Perhaps if we all did that just a little more, hope and history could rhyme just a little more.
With Faith and With Feathers,