‘Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun’. Nothing else could epitomise Seamus Heaney’s poetry better than these simple lines that have become so familiar to students across the country. This award-decorated poet has been the voice that has educated so many, from GCSE to degree level, in the understanding and interpretation of poetry. Heaney’s recent death has been a shock to us all – and has reminded us of his stellar quality as a poet.
Born to a Catholic, working-class and Northern Irish family, Heaney grew up in the ‘in-between’ – in between the dioceses of Derry and Armagh, in between his Irish heritage and his English education, and in between his working-class upbringing and his middle-class education. Though the squat pen of his poetry was comfortable between his finger and thumb, with every word that he wrote he was addressing his ‘in-betweeness’ and compromising his heritage. It was this inner struggle that made him such a success.
His first collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966), set Heaney off on what was to be a rollercoaster ride. He won many awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and the Whitbread award twice. He was the Oxford Professor of Poetry and taught at Harvard University as well as contributing to scholarly works with his renowned translation of Beowulf in 1999. With his last words ‘don’t be afraid’ sent in a text to his wife, Seamus Heaney sadly died on August 30th, leaving a fantastic legacy behind him.
Any student of English Literature will most likely have come across Heaney’s work at some stage in their lives, and unfortunately it is too often with a groan. Decried as ‘dull’ and ‘miserable’, students would much rather tackle Shakespeare than Heaney. Yet such an attitude, I think, is unfathomable. Despite all the controversy over English curriculums at GCSE level at the moment, examiners don’t just consistently choose Heaney for students to study for no particular reason. Every word of his poetry speaks volumes about his life and about the Irish Troubles, which is spell-binding even for the English. Heaney’s poetry is demonstrative of that age-old cliché ‘write what you know about’ for potential poets as well as being technically intriguing for English Literature students.
I was perhaps one of the few exceptions on the ENGL100 course last year that I had never before encountered Heaney at school, and perhaps this is where the English education system falls down – by exposing pupils to poetry that requires mature understanding at too young an age. Reading Heaney’s poetry for the first time at degree level, particularly ‘Digging’ and ‘Bog Queen’, was a refreshing experience, so much so that (dare I say it) he has even influenced my own feeble attempts at poetry. Heaney’s poetry is raw with emotion and the harsh sounds that are evoked make it memorable.
It’s a shame that even though Heaney was clearly a fantastic poet who influenced many, the general public seems to have a stigma against poetry. Yet for anyone who thinks that poetry is incomprehensible or ‘above them’, they need only heed Heaney’s final message – there is nothing to be afraid of. Heaney’s poetry is an eye-opener for anyone with an interest in the relationship between the Irish and the English during the late twentieth century. All you need to do is pick up one of his collections and have a go.