In mid-2003, as the news of the war in Iraq continued to drone on, my friend J. called me on the phone. We were each feeling the heaviness of the war despite the distance of many miles and the mufflings of spin and counter-spin; the helpless wretchedness of knowing that violence wreaked in our names was being employed by the avarice of power for its own ends. Wanting to express the sorrow beneath the anger, J. found a voice for the sadness she felt in lines from Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. I remember listening on the phone with tears:
...like the misery felt by an old manIt's odd -- the poem is not obviously about the sufferings of war, let alone any suffering either J. or I had ever undergone. Moreover, the whole thing is an extended simile -- the old man in the passage is not a character in Beowulf, but a figure to whose sorrow another figure (in an inset story within the poem) is compared. Later that year, Heaney was in Seattle opening the city's annual Arts and Lectures series. In the midst of the talk he remarked upon the war, and by way of insisting upon the perennial relevance of poetry he said he would read a passage that spoke directly to the bereftness of spirit after such loss. I remember feeling my pulse quicken and my breath catch as he began to read. It was, beginning to end, the identical passage. He sensed in it the very same still-viable voice that my friend had heard. It would have been eerie had it not been so obvious.
Who has lived to see his son’s body
Swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
And weep for his boy, watching the raven
Gloat where he hangs: he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
That his child is gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall, now that his first-born
Has entered death’s dominion forever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,
The banquet hall bereft of all delight,
The windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
The warriors underground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.
I suspect Heaney would have found more here than the nice coincidence of a couple of people with roughly similar preferences in literature finding some bare solace in the same stretch of lines. For Heaney, poetry was really a site of genuine meaning, "strong enough to help," in a phrase from George Seferis' notebooks which Heaney quoted more than once (see the lectures published as The Redress of Poetry). This strength comes not from erudition or cleverness or the chance sharing of a taste for verse; and though any attempt to get very specific about it starts, like Yeats' spiritualism and cosmic cycles, to give off a faint whiff of ectoplasm, still you "know it when you feel it." It does help, to find that someone has wrested from what you thought was inevitable muteness an apprehendable word for what you feel; and when that word comes from a millennium away and is recognized by an independent authority (and there was no doubting Heaney's quiet and unassuming authority that night), one has the sense of having touched something almost electric.
One comes, sometimes, indemonstrably close to something, a closeness that is not covered by any deflationary explanation; a feeling that seems actually to depend upon the gap between what one senses, and one's capacity to articulate it; but one feels it the more keenly, the more effort one makes towards articulation -- an effort that can seem effortless but is (any poet will testify) hard-won:
SongSeamus Heaney, 13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013.
A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.
There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.