Monday, March 28, 2011

"What I've Learned from Seamus Heaney"

I'm teaching Seamus Heaney's work tonight, and I Skyped a new colleague in Belfast yesterday, who held up The Irish Times' headline on Heaney. Heaney's struggle against outright partisanship (Simic: at some point, the tribe will ask you to justify murder) led to his own kind of fierce, quiet, unwavering truth-telling.

from "What I've Learned from Seamus Heaney"

To me as a journalist it mattered that the person trying to find his own way through this minefield was a poet whose ethical position both artistically and personally was admirable and hard fought for. During the hunger strikes, like every artist – Paul Brady was one who was targeted and resisted – Heaney was targeted by Republicans to write a poem backing the hunger strikers’ cause. He describes it in Flight Path when Danny Morrison of Sinn Féin lectures him about his duty to the hunger strikers: “When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write / Something for us?” And Heaney’s reply: “If I do write something, / Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.”

It’s a lesson for any journalist, Heaney’s determination not to be used, to express the truth as he saw it for his own purposes and that of his art.

Yet, being allowed to choose his own time and place, he made his protest, sometimes in places where it would hurt him most, as in 1988 at a lunch accepting a Sunday Times literary award. It was a tense time, as he told O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones. There had been the brutal beating – seen on television – and then the killing of two British corporals who had wandered into a spooked crowd attending the funerals of those killed by the loyalist Michael Stone at Milltown cemetery. The Sunday Times more than most had been coming out with what Heaney described as “anti-Irish slabber”.

1 comment:

okelle said...

Just found this post by a random series of events. It's an inspiring quote, and I also like the topic of your blog -- I will be following on Facebook provided that the NetworkedBlogs Syndication app is everything it appears to be.

On a tangential note, one of the members of my writing group worked with Seamus Heaney here in Boston. He is apparently that most rare of poets: not just a good writer, but a good colleague and generally nice guy.

While partisanship hasn't reached the same levels of violence here in the States as it did in Ireland during the Troubles, it's helpful to remember that words lead to actions.