Seamus Heaney, often considered the greatest Irish poet since W. B. Yeats, whom I quoted just recently in an earlier post, died today. I heard about this as I woke in the early hours of the morning. I turned on Minnesota Public Radio, which broadcasts the BBC World Service during the overnight hours, and I heard about Heaney's death.
I can't say I ever read very many of his poems--Irish literature ended for me with works of James Joyce. I spent my undergraduate years obsessively reading my way through everything Joyce published (including Finnegans Wake, and I was actually paid to read that--ask me to tell that story sometime--and no, I did not forget to add an apostrophe to that title: that's the way it's supposed to be). Once upon a time, I thought I would grow up to be a James Joyce scholar, but I became unexpectedly and inexplicably completely uninterested in his work after I finished reading all of it. I then became interested in Charles Dickens and all things Victorian, but that's another story...
Shortly after I arrived at school today, our new Head of School Kevin Breen stopped by to express his sorrow at Heaney's death. He said he needed to check in with another English teacher, with someone who might understand the kind of sadness one can feel at the death of one's favorite poet. When your favorite poet dies, it's as if you've lost part of yourself, I think, because his/her words have become part of your psyche, and there are certain ideas and experiences that you forever understand through the lens or filter of his/her words.
I felt rather speechless when Mr Breen stopped by, and I couldn't immediately think of any consolatory words to offer. And because my own acquaintance with Heaney's work is so casual, I couldn't even trade any quotations with him.
That's often the way it is, with words. You can't always summon them up when you need them, and that's why poets are so important to us. Wherever we are in life, one of them has been there before us and put the experience into words. When we can't figure out what to say, or how to understand our lives, they can actually help by articulating our thoughts for us. (One extra-credit point for the first member of the class of 2014 who can explain, in a comment on this post, why the way a biologist might use the verb "to articulate" is particularly relevant here--hint: read through the entire post, first). This is one of the lessons I hope students learn during our annual Poetry Out Loud exercises.
Later this morning, after the welcome assembly for our GAPP students and teachers, during which Mr Breen made a brief reference to Heaney, I spent just a little time with a few of his poems, and I found a point of connection, something I wasn't expecting that gave me a way to connect personally with one strain of his work.
As my old, battered copy of the 4th edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature tells me, when Heaney was about 30, he read a book that altered his thinking about Irish history and inspired him to write several poems, a book that I encountered as a child and that still fascinates me. The book in question is P.V. Glob's The Bog People. P. V. Glob was a 20th-century Danish archeologist who studied the exceptionally well-preserved Iron- and Bronze-age bodies (the Tollund Man and the Grauballe Man, as two of them came to be known) found in Danish peat-bogs. Two of Glob's books, The Bog People and The Mound People, became classics of 20th-century popular science.
I can still remember coming across Glob's books in the old Duluth Public Library building on 2nd Street (a beautiful building, built with funds donated by Andrew Carnegie, and in which Duluth's rather famous Tiffany Windows once hung). Glob wrote these books for a general audience, and he included many stunning photographs of the bog bodies. The images have always stayed with me: they were beautiful and grotesque at the same time. If you've been paying attention to one of the themes I'm developing in this blog, you'll know what to call such images (one extra-credit point for the first member of the class of 2014 who can provide the correct term in a comment on this post).
Part of what stunned me into fascination was learning that many of the people whose bodies had been found so well-preserved in the Danish bogs had been ritually sacrificed to Mother Earth, perhaps in an attempt to guarantee the fertility of both land and people. I'm of Scandinavian heritage, and this was the first time I'd ever thought about my ancient ancestors in anything more than a generic "they were Vikings, like Leif Erikson" kind of way. I'm still not sure, after all these years, how I feel about this...
Seamus Heaney responded to Glob's work by writing a group of poems he called "Bog Poems." One of those poems, "The Grauballe Man," caught my eye today. I liked the lines which describe the man's slashed throat: "The cured wound / opens inwards to a dark / elderberry place." Wounds are interesting things: even after they're "cured" (think of "cured" in the sense of preserved, not necessarily healed), they forever give you a glimpse into inner darkness. And yet, that darkness is an "elderberry place." Elderberries are common in our area, and they have lovely dark purple berries with some medicinal properties. Think about that: in the very darkness of the wound, there might be some possibility of healing...
Toward the very end of the poem is the phrase that really grabbed me and which I quote in the title of this post. In the beautiful yet brutal images of Glob's books, in the very bodies dug up from the depths of history, Heaney found a metaphor for Ireland's suffering, for the religious and political conflicts which seem to cycle onward endlessly through seasons of pain and healing, and he leaves us with the image of a fragile balance--"perfected in [...] memory" and "hung in the scales / with beauty and atrocity."
That's pretty much where we all are, much of the time, caught between "beauty and atrocity." As I write this, the Labor Day Weekend is beginning, when we all try to hold on to summer's last, lovely days. At the same time, the US is on the brink of military action in Syria. "Beauty and atrocity," all the time.