Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Because poetry makes nothing happen"

It was the fall of 1996, and I was in Book People in Austin, TX. The year before, an Irish poet named Seamus Heaney had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. A new collection of his had just come out. The Spirit Level, it was called. I wanted to read it not because I made a point of reading Nobel winners (for better or worse, I don't) but because he was Irish. I am too, and I take being so very seriously.

I opened the book, and I started reading. Then I sat down, cross-legged, on the floor in front of the poetry section, flipped back to the front page, and read the entire thing. Then I plucked every book of Heaney's poetry off the shelf, and spent my grocery money on books. And didn't care. Because I had never read anything like that before: stark, beautiful, and utterly precise. No word wrong, no word other than exact. Reading his poems was like having someone peel back the layers of my skin and speak directly to my soul.

North encapsulates what it means to be Irish, what it has always meant, in all of the terrible beauty of the place. His Beowulf translation spent over two months on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction. Just imagine that - a translation of an epic poem, that becomes a bestseller in 2000.

In 2001, I sent him an article I had written on his play, The Cure at Troy. It was a law and literature piece using the play as the lens through which to view the Good Friday accords. And he wrote back, critiqued the article, thanked me for writing it, and praised my writing. I could have died happy that day. So yes, I kind of love the man.

Which is a long way of saying, go now, and read everything he has ever written. And also, and especially, read Human Chain, which was just released this week, and is extraordinary. There are new Sweeney poems in it, and a Virgilian visit to the Underworld. There is the plain language of beauty.

Go raith math agat, Seamus. Go raith math agat.


  1. If I were only to buy one collection, which should I?

  2. If you just want many, buy Opened Ground, which collects selected works from 1966-1996. But if I were to recommend something to you in particular, it would either be Sweeney Astray, which is the epic story of Mad Sweeney, or Seeing Things, if you want a straight up collection.

  3. I'm embarrassed to say this, especially with my Irish heritage, but...I remember being at Wellesley, and there was all this kerfuffle about a visiting poet I'd never heard of, and I called up my Dad (who's an Irish poet) and said, "Dad?...I wanted to ask you...because there's some famous poet here everyone's really excited about it, but I have so much work to do...uhhh Seamus Heaney?" and my Dad SHOUTED INTO THE PHONE, "MONICA! GO!! GO!!!!!"

    And I did :)

  4. Monica - as I've said before, although I've never met him, I love your Dad.