Old as war itself is the wartime poet: the one who humanizes in artful form our most ghastly collective sins.
The wartime poet is she who holds forth a moral mirror despite the consequences, using words, images and characters to complicate what from a compromised distance seems clear and absolute.
Homer, Virgil, Jeremiah, Longfellow, Whitman, Kipling – recorders one and all of sundry horrors and atrocities inflicted in the name of a higher good: real, fabricated or some combination thereof.
Wartime poets give voice to the wartime voiceless, be they armed combatants, local civilians or the displaced. They open our eyes and break our hearts at the suffering we inflict.
We should mark the passing of a wartime poet as surely as we mark that of the heralded warrior. So when word came last month that Ireland’s poet-prophet Seamus Heaney had died, there was a deserved outpouring of grief and appreciation.
Heaney was a Catholic who was born on a farm in County Derry and came of age during the gathering storm over Northern Ireland’s historic status within the United Kingdom.
At the heart of the division was the longstanding question of national independence: Would Northern Ireland at last secede from the UK or would it continue as part of its communion?
The reply would be bloody and long in coming.
The Troubles, as the civil conflict was eventually known, began in the late 1960s and over the course of the next thirty years resulted in 3,500 dead, another 100,000 injured and overall disruption of Northern Ireland’s political and economic systems.
While Heaney’s poems on this strife and suffering were but a part of his body of work, no other poet captured in telling detail the signs of a country at war with itself: windows that rattle with the sound of explosions; corpses being carried from bombed out apartments; grieving widows that stand numb beside graves.
Heaney wrote as a witness to these details, but should not be read as a protest poet in the mold of the American Robert Bly or dissident Vietnamese writer Nguyen Chi Thien.
In fact, despite his Catholic roots and nationalist leanings, his war work rarely turns polemic or strays far from the neo-neutrality in which he describes life during war time rather than directly addressing the conflict’s causes – a characteristic of his Troubles poems that his critics often pointed out, branding him the poet of the “in-between”.
Heaney did not let the accusation go unanswered. When asked in 2009 about this less activist tendency, Heaney defended his approach as a valuable emotional anchor in the face of violence: “If poetry and the arts do anything,” he said, “they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.”
Yet there were his politically-tinged moments: Heaney rejected the royal offer of laureateship, saying he had nothing against the Queen but came from another cultural “centre.”
And when offered a place in an anthology of British poetry, he declined and not long thereafter penned the poem, An Open Letter: Don’t’ be surprised if I demur, for, be advised/My passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast The Queen.
In addition to his prolific poetry, Heaney was a translator, critic, educator and writer of prose. He was widely lauded by universities and poetry societies and in 1995 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Seamus Heaney died on August 30, in Dublin. He was 74.
There are and always have been poets whom war seemingly chooses at its own grim pleasure, their fate to one degree or another caught up in the most extreme of our many inhumanities.
Sadly, the voice of the wartime poet has been rendered obsolete if not silly by our era’s militarists, most of whom remain focused on the use of hard data and harder power.
And yet without that voice our thinking about war is too easily shaped by powers that pique the mind but never burden the soul.
So if you’re inclined to imbibe a bit, raise a glass to Seamus Heaney, wartime poet.
And at the same time pray in his name that one day our wartime poets will have to find something else to write about.
Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2013
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