By Christopher B. Daly
Alas, we have lost the great Irish poet of our time. (How long can such a small island make such outsized gifts to the world’s literature?)
One thing I loved about Heaney was the way that many of his poems reminded me of my favorite poems by Robert Frost. With both poets, I could find myself reading along and thinking: well, this is awfully concrete and traditional — stuff about rocks and fields and waves. Then, whammo! Suddenly, I would realize that the poem is actually about the meaning of life or the nature of the self or the ordering of the generations or something other profound church-like theme. It’s like walking across a familiar field and finding yourself on the edge of a deep well.
Also not to be missed: Heaney’s great translation of “Beowulf.” Here’s a way to appreciate it:
Step 1: Clear your decks for a while.
Step 2: On YouTube, call up this version of Heaney reading his own text.
Step 3: Open the text so you can follow along as Heaney speaks.
Step 4: Fall into a great poem.
After that, enjoy these two Heaney poems, two of my favorites. Then, leave a comment with your favorite Heaney poem, fragment, or remembrance.
Between my finger and my thumbThe squat pen rests; snug as a gun.Under my window, a clean rasping soundWhen the spade sinks into gravelly ground:My father, digging. I look downTill his straining rump among the flowerbedsBends low, comes up twenty years awayStooping in rhythm through potato drillsWhere he was digging.The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaftAgainst the inside knee was levered firmly.He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deepTo scatter new potatoes that we picked,Loving their cool hardness in our hands.By God, the old man could handle a spade.Just like his old man.My grandfather cut more turf in a dayThan any other man on Toner’s bog.Once I carried him milk in a bottleCorked sloppily with paper. He straightened upTo drink it, then fell to right awayNicking and slicing neatly, heaving sodsOver his shoulder, going down and downFor the good turf. Digging.The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slapOf soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edgeThrough living roots awaken in my head.But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.Between my finger and my thumbThe squat pen rests.I’ll dig with it.
From “The Cure at Troy”
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.