The death of Seamus Heaney on Friday has robbed these islands of one of their few poets of truly international stature. Among the dwindling group of poetic galácticos – among them Heaney's friend and fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, the Australian Les Murray, arguably Paul Muldoon and Geoffrey Hill – none has achieved the reach, status, or simply name-recognition of the man from Derry.
But there was rather more to Heaney than "Famous Seamus". That he occupied such an exalted position within the global republic of verse is not without its seeming ironies, and they have a specifically political flavour. Born and raised on one side of the border, he decided to cross to the other; when Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion included him in their Penguin Contemporary Book of British Poetry in 1982, he wrote to object: "Be advised/My passport's green/No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen."
The literature in which he was schooled (Hopkins and Frost were early and lasting influences) and the language that he crafted with such rapt attention to its sonorous qualities was, on one view, that of the invader, the coloniser, the imperialist. In the mid-1970s prose poem "Stations of the West", he wrote of his first visit to the Gaeltacht: "I sat on a twilit bedside listening through the wall to fluent Irish, homesick for a speech I was to extirpate."
He did no such thing, of course. And it is ironic, given his global reach, that his greatness as a poet is grounded in his determination to stay true to local topologies of language, culture and identity, to the boglands, alluvial mud, waist-deep mists and mizzling rain of the land that grew him.
But this is no simple fetishisation of the local; Heaney could also locate his poems' concerns within the broader world. Central to this is his recognition, as he outlined it in his Nobel lecture in 1995, that totalising ideologies will always fail to expunge people's loyalty to the traditions, beliefs and behaviours that they cleave to with a kind of familial affection.
In an age when Tacitus's abattoir of history, from Kigali to Srebrenica and now the suburbs of Damascus, is so visible that we risk becoming numb to it, it is poetry's job to bring mass savagery back to the scale of the suffering individual. In addressing both the inner human impulse to sympathy and the abrading external realities that threaten constantly to eliminate it, Heaney's poetry manages to be true to both the world and the word.
Seamus Heaney: born Castledawson 13 April 1939; died Dublin 30 August 2013
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