Poet of the prosaic

Seamus Heaney was the defender of poetry in our times.

In Elizabethan England, Sir Philip Sidney defended poetry as the conduit to the highest perfection that "our degenerate souls" are capable of. In the 19th century, Shelley wrote poetry was the centre and circumference of all knowledge. In our times, poetry has found its most compelling defence in Seamus Heaney. The Irish poet, who died on August 30, was born on the eve of the Second World War and witnessed the turbulent years of the IRA struggle. But till the end of his life, he would believe in the healing powers of verse in a strife-torn world.

"No lyric has ever stopped a tank", Heaney wrote. But poetry addressed the individual, it reached out to the "ore of the self". By affirming the wounded self, it stilled and renewed both "accuser and accused". Heaney also believed that the individual found wholeness by reconciling two forms of knowledge, the poetic and the practical. Poetry breached the frontiers between them, by remaining "true to the impact of external reality" as well as to the "inner laws of the poet's being". Heaney's gruff verse dwelt on ploughed furrows in the soil and the weathered thumb of a regular at the local pub. Digging, peeling potatoes, calling for a drink — the most mundane gestures are imbued with mythic significance.

This stress on the everyday was also, perhaps, a political choice. Heaney wrote poetry that was charged with a deep sense of anger and hurt about the violence in Ireland. He found solace in continuity, in the faith that it would endure through the ruptures of the present. So the rhythms of agricultural Ireland live on in his poetry. The spade of his forefathers changes to a pen in his hand. "I'll dig with it," he said.

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