[Paolo Febbraro, Seamus Heaney, and Damiano Abeni at the Casa delle Letterature, Rome, May 2013]
[According to the Poetry Foundation's website, "Paolo Febbraro is a poet and critic. His collections of verse include Il bene materiale (Libro Scheiwiller, 2008) and Deposizione (LietoColle, 2010)." He is also one of our dear friends. This piece was first published in Il Sole 24 Ore, 1 September, 2013.]
It’s very much worthwhile to learn English to read a poet. To learn a language in its chromatics, in its folds, in its rhythmic inclinations. And certainly, in literature, that language is always the language of someone in particular. Take Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and essayist who died on August 30. To read his work means that you will have seeds sown in you by a different gaze, that you will resonate with a clarity that the reading is extracting from within you.
Poetry: that was his secret. For Heaney, it was a lasting miracle: never an art simply granted, to be polished or updated, but an unforeseeable gift, an abundant grace. He had a distracted and good-natured way of reading his poems in public, briefly explaining the occasion of the composition of each: he generously made use of the time granted to him by his audience, but at the same time, he seemed to be surprised by the attention. Born in 1939 to Catholic farmers in Ulster, where there was a Protestant majority, he spent his early years on a farm, tramping through the fields of peat, scouring the natural wells and cavities of trees. Later, a brilliant student at St Columb's College in Derry and at Queen's University in Belfast, he met other young authors such as Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, and he began to suspect that he, too, could be a poet. He published his first attempts at poetry under the pseudonym "Incertus." The decisive moment of his life was the discovery that he was able to "dig” with “the squat pen" into the land that his forefathers had worked, with agility and expertise, with the assuredness that comes through work, the work to which their arms had been trained by the traditional tools. Every true poet asks himself: why was this given to me? Seamus Heaney understood – in the early years of the 1960s – that he had to weave his own roots into his reading of other poets. That he had to weave the language of his own oppressed homeland -- the Gaelic singing and gutturals -- into the splendor of the language of Shakespeare, learned from the English conquerors.
He absorbed the violent energy of the absolute line from the great Gerard Manley Hopkins; he traversed the already visionary topography of Ireland with Patrick Kavanagh; he found a brother in Englishman Ted Hughes and in the incisive concreteness of his words. His poetic debut, Death of a Naturalist (1966) seemed to birth another world entirely in the minds of his readers, along with the irreplaceable terms that can create that same world in the conscience, as well.
The Troubles that broke out in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s threatened the naturalness of his writing. In his collection, North (1975), Heaney applied his prehensile gaze to the poor human remains found in peat bogs, shrunken into a final gesture that hints at the psychic depth where violence lurks and commits its own eternal crimes. Later, in Station Island (1984), he made a pilgrimage among the ghosts of the everyday news and the sense of guilt, and emerged, having confirmed the desire to be himself, out of the blackmail of those who erect barriers and their opponents who, with altogether similar means, want to tear them down.
The definitive turning point came with Seeing Things (1991). He who sees is not he who perceives, but rather, he who truly connects to the landscape, who completes it with memory, who lets himself be impregnated with it by having been mysteriously chosen by it. This "extra seeing" of those who perceive the miracle in the thick of appearances is not the result of a romantic abstraction, a secession from the world; instead, it is its most faithful interpretation, what remains of its integral crossing. The percussively monosyllabic language of Heaney opened up to a different, flowing sonority, to create ever more closely "the music of what happens."
Meanwhile, Heaney became a professor of poetry at Oxford and at Harvard, and portrayed the poets he loved in lively, mobile essays. He posed to himself the fundamental questions about the responsibility of art, assigning to art the task -- even if it is unconscious of it -- of "atonement." Probably as a result of the wishes of two friends, Nobel Laureates Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky, the Stockholm committee became aware of his ability to traverse different worlds, to keep them together in the powerful syntax of the imagination. Heaney was traveling in Greece in October, 1995, when the Swedish Academy decided to bestow an absolutely incontrovertible honor, seventy years after the one that was accorded to the "Celtic magus," William Butler Yeats.
Now, however, is the time to mourn the man; to mourn his gaze, narrowed and benevolent; to mourn his great cordiality, based on instinct and rationality both; to mourn his unconditional affection, which suddenly improved the quality of your own existence, even that part of your existence that had already passed. When you met him, he delegated the first warmth of the encounter and the conversation to his wife Marie, and then he chimed in, counterpointing with fragrant wit.
Recently, Italy has come to embrace a friendship with Heaney, already an imitator of Dante and Virgil. A friendship that he had begun to reciprocate with his work on Giovanni Pascoli, another unrivaled "poet of the earth." Seamus Heaney was a fun person and gentle, highly educated and able to link you right into that Human Chain, which he chose as the title for his final collection (2010). He had a masterful simplicity in allowing the poem to take shape. What we have as our firmest possession, he still seems to tell us, is what is based on familiar, but finally unknowable, data. Years ago, when we started talking about the volume in which his collected work will soon appear, in the Mondadori series, I Meridiani, he told me of his doubt of being worthy of this honor. I almost could not find the words to answer him.
(I Meridiani: the Italian collection of Very Important Writers, published by Mondadori, similar to the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade or the Library of America)
[translated by Moira Egan with Damiano Abeni]