Poem by Seamus Heaney.
Here’s a transcript of his talk, Making Sense of a Life:
So I think the difference in a poem or a work of literary art, as I would say, story, now, is that it isn’t for the moment utilitarian communication. It is, in a sense, some kind of housing of a moment, a snapshot of consciousness that can be looked upon by other persons. People.
I always like to make a play on two words which sound the same. There’s h-e-a-r-d, heard, and there’s h-e-r-d, herd, and i think that in writing poetry, especially in times of crisis, political crisis, we’ve got to beware of h-e-r-d feelings as opposed to h-e-a-r-d.
The writer is there to be h-e-a-r-d singularly, not to be part of the tribe. Although at moments of crisis this is a very fine and important distinction, actually. And it’s one that in the States I noticed in the sixties and seventies when I was here.
During the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland we had very strong sense of the afro-american the black civil rights movement here. And I had very strong sympathy with the black American poets here, whose first person singular — I — was under pressure always to become first person plural — we — and so that is always a question that arises: Your relationship to your group. Whether you should be standing off from them, or being their conscience as James Joyce would say, or being their voice.
There are different requirements at different times.
I really began writing poetry in earnest in my early twenties and at that point I suppose what I was trying to do and probably have been trying to do since is to integrate our first life, which was far from books, far from literature. Which was in a far off time, really, because the…anthropologically speaking, I suppose, even though chronologically I grew up in the 20th century. But it was a 20th century that had wrote really in the medieval, I mean, I was in countryside where we still, you know, plowed with horses, lit the fire in the morning, you know, carried water from wells, and so on…So in quick, in a very quick time, all that changed, in a common life in Northern Ireland, and in my own personal life.
So what the poetry is trying to do is to make sense of a life in that time, and in that time, of course, included not only my own autobiographical experience but it included the political history of Northern Ireland which was a kind of a riven, a riven and a large subject, so I had to deal with that, too.
✶ Thursday, 2 November 2023