I studied a few of your poems in the twelfth grade. You were the last, the most ‘recent’ in a group of twentieth century poets who were encased in the covers of a robin’s egg blue book, its front emblazoned with portraits of Tennyson, Blake and, yes, you. I didn’t know who you were when I received that book, and I didn’t particularly thrill to your music. You were not, in my very considered opinion, a ‘poet’, because you didn’t write in rhyming verses, nor did you describe beautiful things like King Arthur’s exploits, Elven women in the Wood and tigers blazing in the night.
What use is poetry, I thought, if it cannot cloak the dreariness of the world? Why would anyone want to read about potatoes, or peat-frozen women, Mr Heaney? Why would they open a book of verse to find these things when they could get the real version easily enough? Where was the beauty of it?
You didn’t have the passion of Hughes, tearing into existence tooth and claw, painting lovesongs red with the blood of an opened vein. You weren’t Tennyson, aesthetisizing grief and, with your rhythmic melodies, moving your reader and yourself past it. You weren’t Larkin, making biting, bitter statements about the futility and meaninglessness of existence, though like him, you used the everyday and wove your words around things we could all know and understand.
The question I had was, why would we want to see what we already understood?
High school and its dreary annals behind me, I arrived in college, breathless with anticipation of what ‘literature’ awaited me. As I wandered the dust-moted lanes of the Library, I chanced upon your translation of ‘Beowulf’ in a section that contained, mostly, writing by and on the Romantic poets.
Why would I, sitting in my corner of the world, would know about Beowulf. The answer is long and complicated and involves a lot of history and politics and other affairs which, hailing from the country you did, would know much more of than me. I think you will understand if I skip the history lesson.
For me, however, Beowulf and the fact that I know of its significance is more than a matter of political and cultural history. I love the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and when I learned that Beowulf was one of the texts he taught and modelled his own epic on, I knew I to read it. And you made that possible.
It was then, when I had finished your translation, that it came home to me why people loved you, why they celebrated you. In your own manner, you were doing the same as Tolkien: weaving pride and dignity from the annals of history, placing the humble in the spotlight, showing that fortune’s wheel is turned, as he put it, ‘by small hands while the great are looking elsewhere’.
And then I read you with freshly-opened eyes, watched as you carved a live skull from the ground with your pen, scattered a libation of ink on its peat-encrusted brow, kissed it back into its native earth with words, gave it fame, if not the peace it had lacked in life. I watched as you whittled away with your ‘spade’ and the past and present swam into focus, clarified by your stark and uncompromising, and yet, strangely gentle words. You were ever in the shadows, I thought, translating, translating, the history of your world into literature, bringing it out there for the rest of us to see.
From you I learned that poetry is not always glamorous, that it is not just the clever spinning of words—neither is prose, for that matter, though I still fall prey to the sweet and easy seduction of a finely turned phrase. See, I’m doing it again.
I learned that a writer’s role, really, a true Writer (not the many that crowd the markets, but those few who, as my colleague put it, reach above and stay there as beacons for the rest of us), is to watch the world and ‘dig’ into its ‘gravelly’ ground with a ‘squat’ pen. From you I learned reflection. From you I learned that literature is not always the sounding of trumpets and the death grin of a pike, the sheen of a painting on a wall.
So thank you, Mr Heaney. Thank you for that lesson.