Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Rhyming of Hope and History

Seamus Heaney, beloved poet and chronicler of the conflict in Northern Ireland, passed away on August 30.

“He turned our disgrace into grace …” said Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times. Eileen Battersby, describing this “moment of profound universal grief,” said: “It has been many, many years, probably not since the death of Tolstoy at a railway station master’s hut, has the announcement of a death of a writer caused such a cohesive, collective and universal sorrow.”

Mourners spoke of Heaney’s wit, of his sagacity—and, continually, of his profound humanity. They spoke of the stacks of mail that appeared on his desk; mail he made every effort to answer, though such diligence further crowded his own, already daunting, schedule.

I was one of those supplicants. In the mid-1990s, at a sister’s insistence, I sent Heaney a sheaf of poetry. I did not expect a response. The Nobel committee had just awarded Ireland’s chief poet its prize for literature.

But respond he did, apologizing for “the brevity” of his note. “Your poems were waiting among a mountain of other material – and other poems  when I got here yesterday,” this kind man said. “I am in Harvard now only for a couple of days.”

He continued: “I was touched, of course, to hear an echo of ‘The Singer’s House,’ and pleased by the tension and reticence of the writing in general. …”  

The poem he referenced, a poem that echoed one of his own, I’d written for the child of a distant acquaintance who was born with a deformity: a child born without ears.


On Heaney's death Ireland’s president, Michael Higgins, paid tribute to the poet's legacy. "Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus's poems. Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organisations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience.”

Heaney memorialized the universal sorrow of conflict. In “Funeral Rites,” his women left behind in empty kitchens resembled women I’d researched; women who’d survived this country’s “Molly Maguire” conflict. His “tight gag of place / And times” from “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” described what I’d glimpsed of the conflict in Pennsylvania’s hard coal fields—and of the troubled, contentious, controversial telling of its history.


The poem I wrote that echoed Heaney’s “The Singer’s House” is titled “Swimmer.” I offer it here in honor and memory of this great and singular man.

the child who was born
without ears
without ears

I hope he is with
the souls
of the drowned souls

swimming in Gweebarra
transfigured into seals

their sleek heads
skimming the waves

listening for the sound
of the singer
on the shore

A. Flaherty