Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, August 30, 2013

In Memoriam Seamus Heaney

In the first section of his great elegy for William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden shows us a world in which the great poet dies quietly, away from the noise and bustle of lives that go on and on:

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

How in our busyness and our manifold occupations we cannot pause to attend to death, the passing of someone who in his own way was important — this was a theme of Auden's in those days. In “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a slightly earlier poem, he had written of how miraculous events and terrible ones happen while no one can be bothered to look:

even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

This morning I awoke to the news that Seamus Heaney has died. Search for his name in a Twitter client and the results multiply second by second, scrolling, filling the screen over and over. But of course in any given Twitter feed the references pop up amidst the quotidian. My friend Brian Phillips offered beautiful recollections of Heaney that, as they appeared before my eyes, were punctuated by others' tweets about Syria, comical cats, and the rigors of the morning commute. The cats go on with their catty life.

Yeats died on January 28, 1939, two days after Auden had arrived, by ocean liner, in New York City. Auden might have read about the older poet's death in the New York Times or the Herald Tribune, or heard the news on the radio. When Dickens died in 1870, his many American fans read about it in their newspapers, but the newspapers received the information first via telegraph. Before the telegraph, international news would have traveled by ship, and the farther back you go in time the more irregular were those voyages and the more haphazard the information they carried.

I don't know what's better, what's worse. Important and trivial news have always traveled together, to be sorted out differently by people with differing interests. The last time Twitter was totally overwhelmed by someone's death was, I guess, Whitney Houston's, and I was frustrated that day by how impossible it was to avoid hearing the same things about her over and over again unless you had a Twitter client that could mute keywords — which I had, and which I used.

There won't be nearly as much attention given to Heaney today as there was to Whitney Houston when she passed, but there will be a good bit in my Twitter timeline, because I follow a good many literary people. I'm looking forward to it. There will be links to poems, which I will read with pleasure. There may be more stories like Brian's. I smile to think that the world's consumption of Guinness will receive a considerable boost today, as many dark glasses will be lifted in the poet's honor.

This much is clear: a great poet has died, and mere hours after “his last afternoon as himself” millions and millions of people will know that it has happened. Perhaps more people will learn of Heaney's death than of any other poet's demise, ever. This is an odd thought that I don't know what to do with. In any event, the poetry remains — the poetry that took long slow hours to make and rewards long slow hours of reading. And it will remain, for those who care to seek it, on pages and screens alike. “Let the Irish vessel lie, / Emptied of its poetry.”

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