Huffpost Arts
Lorie Karnath Headshot

A Glorious Voice-Seamus Heaney

Posted: Updated:

When the world lost Seamus Heaney, so departed among its most glorious of voices. While the gift of his written voice will continue to live on indefinitely, the expressively inspiring tones of the poet's physical sound have sadly been extinguished. It was unequivocally his voice that one first "saw" upon meeting Seamus Heaney. There it was, resonant, melodic, mournful, reflecting off the crisp surface of the tiles in his country style kitchen dominating the room with an intense tenor and cadence. From this encounter in his Dublin home, a gesticulating portrait of the author wreathed in kitchen crockery, his head back, eyes closed, prompts a remembrance of his voice, an evocation of his literature that garnered him the Nobel prize in 1995 "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."

The commanding house in which Heaney resided for many years conveys the impression of perpetuity. Built in 1886 it exudes permanence, embodying the celebration of bygone endeavors along with the wonder of common occurrences, perhaps intuitively the physical counterpart of the author's written work. Soon after its purchase in 1976, Heaney eagerly introduced a fellow writer to his new home. It was a cold November night, the house still without electricity at the time provided only it's imposing silhouette against a cloudy moonscape. In this light the black outline looked to Heaney's eyes as a presentation of the "substantial, solid" yet his friend interpreted the looming presence as ominous, foreboding. Although concurring that there may have been some context to his friend's perception, for the author the structure retained a benign manifestation. The act of entering, turning the latch, always representing the opportunity for continuity as well as for new beginnings. Certainly the lived-in comfort emanating from within bore ample testimony to that of the benevolent presence. Upon our meeting the welcome offer of Irish coffee and the surrounding warmth of the furnishings, immediately dispelled the cold winter winds of Dublin along with any sense of foreboding.

Considered arguably the world's best-known poet, Mr. Heaney was the recipient of innumerable prizes and accolades. Among these the Nobel Prize in 1995. However for a day and a half Seamus Heaney remained blithely unaware that he had won this illustrious award. At the time on vacation in Greece on route from Sparto to Pylos, it would not be until late the following afternoon that his son would finally reach him with the news of which most of the world was already aware. The notification took him completely by surprise. He indicated that he was not someone who coveted any prizes and had long before receiving this particular honor disregarded with extreme skepticism the lists of potential contenders compiled by the press. The selection process for this attribute was in the author's view difficult to comprehend and he imagined the procedure as "a number of men overboard bobbing in the sea from which one is chosen". However for Heaney the effects of winning such an accolade defied measurement, "the Nobel Prize is like being effected by magic, you are changed forever in the eyes of the world, you are changed by your own estimation, as you are aware of the change in the perception from others". However as many who have shouldered this prize, he soon realized that "writing more than usual had become a cunning exercise in survival". To be a successful writer an element of "self-forgetfulness and getting on with it" is required. With the immense public dimension of the award, the ability to retain this important facet represented in the form private study becomes exceedingly difficult. Initially Heaney described "an element of rage at the added duties that [he] had both engendered and signed up for". While the experience of being "fingered" by the Nobel Foundation provided him with "more economic freedom and tied me down with more public duty". He was no longer allowed to strictly consider himself a poet but as he described it became a spokesperson for the art "I am a package, a gradual accruing of point, not momentum but mass".

However he took inspiration in the daily turning of the house latch, followed by the sound of the latch closing, allowing for the traversing inwardly or outwardly of his home's imposing façade. This he saw as the catalyst "which sets the whole system alive and gets you started, like the inspiration to a poem or like anything you do", reminding him of Robert Frost "sight, excite, incite." This simple act provided the momentum to follow "hoping to excite and surprise yourself a little, little bit". To find that you have "more than you thought, rather than a settlement that is grand but not good enough, as you know things come to an end".