A Modest Tribute

Dear Mr Heaney,

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.

And the great shroud of the sea rolled on

I have never lost a teacher before. The experience is a strange and unsettling one. It makes you realize finally, like nothing else, that you are growing up. At the same time, this particular loss, and the amazing number of people who came forth to show their love for this man, despite his ‘lonely’ death, made me feel warm and glad to be part of such an emotionally bonded group.

I will miss Dr Ashish Roy, as I miss college and all the pleasant moments associated with it. He took me in, he pushed me into English, and he did, as any teacher would, guide me down its path. I am grateful for having known him.

When I think of Dr Roy, I think of Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’. Perhaps this is because it was one of the last texts we had the privilege of studying with him, but as a literature student, I like to think there is a deeper and more symbolic level of meaning to this association. Never being much of an enthusiast for such readings himself, Dr Roy would probably disagree and tell me not to overwhelm him with the ‘weight of my profundities’, all the while giving his trademark half smile and shrugging laugh. The answer was obvious, he always held, we just had to push past all the symbolic murk clouding our minds.

But in this instance, I hold by my reading. Like Melville’s masterpiece, Dr Roy is for many people many things. A gatekeeper to the doors of college admission, the seemingly ever grim Head of Department, ensconced in his sunny office with the glaring orange and yellow curtains, deep voiced actor who could regale us, when we asked for it, tales of the Shakespeare Society in the days of college past. He was, as my friends put it, an enigma, a ‘character’. Of course, that only lent itself better to our stories, and we made up and embellished so many about him. We did this with all of our teachers, the beauty of the English department being its bizarre and muse-worthy denizens, but Dr Roy could be said to boast a treasure trove all his own.

It says something that, when we heard the news of his passing, what emerged in our many conversations were these stories—how he would send one unsuspecting student to fetch his tea before tutorials, how he would treat us at the end of the year to whatever we wanted in the cafe, his beautiful readings of Pablo Neruda in the original Spanish and of course, his recitation of the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We felt grief, yes, but as good literature students, as good readers anywhere in the world would do, we take comfort in the fact that he is very much here, with us, in the stories we tell, the imitations we do, the general ‘what would Roy say to that?’ that peppers so much of our conversation, no matter how long it has been since we were in college.

In this way, Roy is like Moby Dick, the whale and the text as a whole. He would probably make some quip about how I was insulting him or questioning his size, but I believe that, beneath that crusty exterior, he would understand. And though the great shroud of the sea has rolled on, it can never completely inundate what he was, what he still is, for us today.