Upon hearing of Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s death this morning, what came to mind were not lines of his own vigorous and mould-covered verse, but those of W. H. Auden’s tribute to W. B. Yeats following that poet’s death:
 
Follow, poet, follow right 
To the bottom of the night, 
With your unconstraining voice 
Still persuade us to rejoice
 
I do not think Heaney would have been thrilled by another line drawn from him to Yeats, but neither do I think he would have been surprised. Heaney spent his poetic career in the shadow of Yeats, who died in 1939, the year Heaney was born.
 
The comparison is unfair, but it is also a compliment: Heaney, like Yeats before him, brought his thoroughly Irish verse and set it upon the word stage—the first Irish poet to do so with such a far-reaching impact since Yeats. If Yeats, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, was the Elijah of Irish poetry, Heaney, who won the same award in 1995, was the Elisha. They were.
 
Heaney’s poetry speaks to work in what used to be called “the real world”: potato-digging, carpentry, sod-cutting. Born in Northern Ireland, but for most of his life living in Dublin, from his first volume of verse, 1966’s Death of a Naturalist, Heaney turned the troubles of human life—and the Troubles of his homeland—into occasions for contemplation on what it means to be human and how the transcendent always resides in the near-at-hand. This was his poetic gift, present in one of his earliest and most-anthologized poems:
 
 
Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun. 
 
Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down 
 
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging. 
 
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly. 
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep 
To 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 day 
Than any other man on Toner’s bog. 
Once I carried him milk in a bottle 
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up 
To drink it, then fell to right away 
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods 
Over his shoulder, going down and down 
For the good turf. Digging. 
 
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap 
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge 
Through living roots awaken in my head. 
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. 
 
Between my finger and my thumb 
The squat pen rests. 
I’ll dig with it.
 
 
Through his verse, Heaney probed the soil of Ireland and the uncreated conscience of the human race. His voice will be missed. 
 
Michael Martin teaches English at Marygrove University and is an organic farmer.
 
 
 
 
 

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