26 September 2011


Today's post is an homage. On December 7, 1995, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His acceptance address, entitled "Crediting Poetry", was itself a blend of remembrance delivered in poetic prose. His life story, and his paean to poetry, began in his childhood in Country Derry, in what is now Northern Ireland, with descriptions which parallel my own rural childhood. Throughout his address, Heaney referred often to those poets who influenced his world view, and he describes poetry itself as "an ark of the covenant between language and sensation."

Through most of my adult life I've read more prose than poetry. I feel now that this was my loss, that the paring down of language to its most essential words and cadences is what makes poetry so compelling. In Heaney's words, "there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasureably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself."

At one point in his narraative, Heaney alludes to a poem by another Nobel Prize-winning Irish Poet, William Butler Yeats ~ "There Yeats presents himself among the portraits and heroic narrative paintings which celebrate the events and personalities of recent history and all of a sudden realizes that something truly epoch-making has occurred ~ 'This is not', I say / The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland / The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.' And the poem concludes with two of the most quoted lines of his entire oeuvre:

'Think where man's glory most begins and ends,

And say my glory was I had such friends.' "

At this link you can read the entire text of Heaney's address, which like poetry itself provokes and inspires all the senses. You will also find a prompt where you can listen to an audio recording of his 51 minute lecture ~ listening to the lilts and rumbles and pauses is as much a treat as the words themselves. And that, gentle reader, is part of the experience of poetry.