Nation & World News

Heaney’s Poems — Great, Dangerous, Healing — Live On

By Craig Morgan Teicher on August 30th, 2013

Seamus Heaney died this morning, but his poems continue to be very much alive — and in them, he is first and foremost a poet whose poems you feel in your mouth. Pronouncing the words as he describes a bog in which “Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles/ Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell” puts all that grit and wetness and earth on your tongue.

Digging,” Heaney’s youthful assumption of both the earthy groundedness and violent lineage of his homeland, was the first poem Heaney wrote that, he says, he truly felt was his. It was also one of the first poems I loved.

“Between my finger and thumb/ The squat pen rests, snug as a gun,” the poem begins; what a powerful and frightening thing I realized I was holding, my pen, as I wrote my own (terrible) first attempts at poetry.

Heaney was a deeply political writer, but, more than anything, his work emphasized one of poetry’s most basic and most important lessons: that words are the human element as much as air. Heaney knew that in his bones. As a teacher of mine, the poet Robert Farnsworth, used to say, many human problems — if not most — take place in the language, the principal strength and failing of which is precision.

Heaney was a master of picking the right words, of finding, for instance, the sound of a taste, the syllable of a smell, the vowel for what a thing does (a piece of straw stuck into a spinning upturned bicycle wheel “frittered,” for instance).

But he also understood, warily, that words tend to want to point to one truth at a time: toward yes or no, right or wrong. He struggled in his poems to find ways of making words take more than one side at once, while he stood at the crossroads of one of history’s bitterest ongoing territorial and ideological conflicts.

Heaney found many figures for the persistence of history through time, its enduring conscience; among the most beautiful were his poems about “bog people,” earlier citizens of Ireland mummified in swamps and unearthed. Heaney visited them and wrote poems that quietly illustrate how violence is never forgotten, how violent acts reverberate from the past through the future, as does the hanging of this man:

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Drying Gaul
too strickly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

That “actual weight” still bears down on us. There’s been a lot of talk lately about contemporary poetry’s value or lack thereof; a good poem reminds us that words are our most powerful, dangerous, and healing inventions. Heaney wrote not just good poems, but great poems — I’ll be keeping his words in my mouth as reminders for the rest of my life.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of three books, most recently Cradle Book: Stories and Fables and To Keep Love Blurry: Poems. He has been an NPR NewsPoet, has served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, publishes reviews widely and works as director of Digital Operations and Poetry Reviews editor at Publishers Weekly magazine.

Teicher lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and children.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

This entry was posted in News from NPR. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.

 

More Stories in News from NPR

People walk past and take pictures of Swiss artist Peter Regli's "Snow Monsters 2015" during a storm in New York City Monday. Areas of New York and neighboring states are expected to get up to 2 feet of snow in a large and dangerous storm.

‘Crippling’ Snowfall Predicted As Storm Hits Northeast

In areas such as New York City, the worst of the snow is expected to hit around midnight. The next time the city will have less than a 50 percent chance of snow won’t come until 3 p.m. ET Tuesday.


Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez unveiled her plan to replace her country's intelligence service with a new agency. She delivered a televised speech while seated in a wheelchair in Buenos Aires.

Argentina’s President Dissolves Intelligence Agency, Citing Prosecutor’s Death

A week after an Argentine prosecutor was found dead on the eve of his testimony about an alleged government cover-up of a terrorist attack, President Cristina Fernandez unveils a new plan.


Jeffrey Sterling, Former CIA Officer, Is Convicted Of Espionage

Jeffrey Sterling was fired from the CIA in 2002. His case has drawn wide attention in part because he was accused of giving secret information to James Risen of The New York Times.


An Asteroid Is Passing Very Close To Earth Today. Here’s How To See It

At its closest point, asteroid 2004 BL86 came within about 750,000 miles from Earth — or almost three times farther away than the moon.


SkyMall art by Kevin and Miles Taylor.

Just Plane Sad: A Show Of Support For SkyMall

News last week that SkyMall’s parent company has filed for bankruptcy protection inspired an outpouring of odes to the kitschy in-flight catalog.


Thank you for your support

WUFT depends on the support of our community — people like you — to help us continue to provide quality programming to North Central Florida.
Become a Sustainer
I want to support FM 89.1/NPR
I want to support Florida's 5/PBS
Donate a Vehicle
Day Sponsorship Payments
Underwriting Payments