Poets toil to convey the great truths
By Michael O'Hare
Published: Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Perhaps you missed it, the passing a week ago today of Irish Nobel Prize winner in literature Seamus Heaney in a Dublin Hospital.
For those who love poetry, it was a major event.
One of his obituaries said he was “recognized as” Ireland's greatest poet since William Butler Yeats. That is indeed saying something.
He and Yeats were two of four Irishman to have won the Nobel in literature. Samuel Beckett and George Bernard Shaw were the other two, all having practiced their craft in Dublin at some time in their lives. It is mighty company to keep in the world of letters.
You may have noticed that I put quotes around “recognized as” and I did it so we might reconsider the words.
To use such words is a journalist's way of indirectly saying that you may disagree that he was the “greatest poet since …” but you should understand that some thought him so.
Of course, I did not know the august Mr. Heaney, but I would love to be able to talk to him now about use of those two words in his obituary, and inasmuch as he spoke to the dead in some of his works perhaps that can be done some day.
I would like to know if he would agree that we equivocate too much in our world today?
In this instance, why not just say he was Ireland's greatest poet since Yeats?
But then, in my dreamed conversation, I imagine Mr. Heaney placing the blame on the very words he and we all use to communicate.
Words are not reality, he might tell me (I am hoping he would, because it is what I think); they are simply are best efforts to capture reality, to convey our thoughts on it to someone else.
We are so willing, as listeners and readers of words, to accept them as giving us reality. We accept what the politician on TV is telling us because what he expresses as his reality coincides with reality as we see it.
I think that excellent poets – and novelists and film directors and composers of music – try with whatever means they can employ in their medium to give us a real life experience. And when they do, that experience may be different for each of us.
The medium can be as pure as a photograph (though also not reality) or as complicated as a staged drama or an epic poem, but is will be an attempt to convey the real – as real as we can possibly see life.
I had just finished reading the Associated Press obituary for Mr. Heaney, which concluded with the usual reference to survivors: his wife Marie and children Christopher, Michael and Catherine.
Shortly after at home, I picked up “Seamus Heaney, Selected Poems 1966-1987” and opened at random to a poem titled “A Kite for Michael and Christopher”.
Later in the week, I would see a picture of the boys-turned-men shouldering their father's coffin.
The “Kite” poem is about a Sunday afternoon and the flying of a kite, a kite that the author apparently had a hand in making. But the writer is — by my assessment — also crafting our experience, bringing us to equate the kite with the human soul.
He urges his boys to take hold of the kite string and feel “the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief. You were born fit for it.”
Mr. Heaney opened his eyes and his heart and gave us a truth in his unique way, and in this poem it was a truth that his sons and family can now cherish in their grief.
It is a truth handed from poet to reader as only such a renowned man of words could even attempt to share.
You won't get that kind of directness in a newspaper, or on the evening news, much as the providers of it may hope that you do so.
Poets urge us to slow down and see and feel and touch and think, knowing it is nearly impossible to grab strands of truth unless we do.
Why do poets keep trying to convey truths? The only thing I can conclude is that they do it because they must really love us.
I can think of no nobler cause – on a week when all the talk is of war.
Meandering appears Fridays. To share your thoughts on this column (or on most anything) with News Editor Mike O'Hare, write to the Leader Times, P.O. Box 978, Kittanning, PA 16201 or via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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