Brain Pickings

Seamus Heaney (RIP) Reads “Death of a Naturalist” and His Nobel Lecture on the Power of Poetry

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How poetry works to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness” and remind us that we are “hunters and gatherers of values.”

How heartbreaking to learn that beloved Irish poet, playwright, and translator Seamus Heaney (April 13, 1939–August 30, 2013) has died. The recipient of innumerable awards, including the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, he has been noted as the best-read living poet in the world in the past few decades.

To celebrate his legacy, here is Heaney’s exquisite reading of the title poem from his 1966 anthology Death of a Naturalist (public library), followed by his timeless wisdom on poetry, politics, and culture from his Nobel acceptance speech.

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Nearly thirty years later, in 1995, Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Unlike Hemingway’s laconic acceptance speech, Heaney delivered an epic 51-minute lecture, found in Nobel Lectures: From the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2006 (public library), reflecting on his influences, the role of politics in poetry, and his “journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival … turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination.” Heaney begins by crediting poetry’s enormous personal and cultural gift:

Poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference. . . . I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.

Despite having come of age in violence-torn Northern Ireland, an experience that profoundly shaped his voice as a poet, Heaney acknowledges his effort to “make space in [his] reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous,” and illustrates poetry’s magnificent power as a tool for expanding our scope of empathy with an example from Homer:

At the sight of the man panting and dying there,
she slips down to enfold him, crying out;
then feels the spears, prodding her back and shoulders,
and goes bound into slavery and grief.
Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks:
but no more piteous than Odysseus’ tears,
cloaked as they were, now, from the company.

Even to-day, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer’s image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman’s back and shoulders survives time and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable.

The form of the poem, Heaney argues, only amplifies its power to stir us into our own humanity:

The form of the poem … is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.

Two years later, Heaney revisits the subject in this lengthy Paris Review interview, taking it a step further to explore the political power of the poetical — a power of indirect but monumental impact:

I think the poet who didn’t feel the pressure at a politically difficult time would be either stupid or insensitive.

[…]

Debate doesn’t really change things. It gets you bogged in deeper. If you can address or reopen the subject with something new, something from a different angle, then there is some hope. … People are suddenly gazing at something else and pausing for a moment. And for the duration of that gaze and pause, they are like reflectors of the totality of their own knowledge and/or ignorance. That’s something poetry can do for you, it can entrance you for a moment above the pool of your own consciousness and your own possibilities.

Thank you, Seamus, for half a century of entrancing us above our possibilities.

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