By Victor D. Infante
When I was a teenager living in England, I became obsessed with Ireland, the land of my mother’s ancestors … a place that seemed so close and yet, for a poor college student, as out of reach as Narnia. So while I scrimped and saved money enough to hitchhike across the country and visit distant relatives in Limerick, I turned toward exploring the poetry of the country I had not yet visited, but could feel resonating in my blood.
It was at this time that I discovered Seamus Heaney, when I was young and searching for a connection to show me where I belonged in the world. I’ve not really written about him much, the way I have with poets such as Ted Hughes or Patricia Smith, whose thunderclap influence can be traced to the moment I saw them read live in front of an audience. No, Heaney’s affect on my life was much quieter and more gradual, but not any less powerful. His words connected me to an Ireland that was very, very much alive. One I would see with my own eyes one day.
Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry, write W.H. Auden, mourning the death of Ireland’s arguably greatest poet, W.B. Yeats. Heaney delved into that madness, too, as every poet of Irish lineage has before him and since, all connected by both blood and verse. That Heaney did it better than the rest of us is beside the point.
Most everyone who chooses poetry as a profession has a spot of that madness clawing at them from somewhere at the back of his or her brain. It doesn’t have to be Ireland. In this world, there is heartbreak the size of mountains everywhere you look. And make no mistake: you pay a price for wrestling with that madness. Most of the best of us end up wrecked by drugs or alcohol, destitute or mad. We’re as flawed as any other human beings, and often moreso. We’re probably not good role models.
“But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost,” writes Heaney, in The Haw Lantern, “it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes/ with his lantern, seeking one just man.”
Diogenes, of course, never finds his just man. “You flinch before its bonded pith and stone,/ its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,/ its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.”
Again and again, we are left guilty and shuddering as the light falls away from us. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still truths to be found on poets’ lips, even if they are as flawed and fallible as anyone else. Indeed, the necessary truths we’re charged with bringing forward reside in that cracked human darkness. And if we are very, very lucky, it will break our hearts, and we will survive the experience more-or-less intact.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, writes Auden, reminding us that the darkness we peer into is far too big to be vanquished. It will outlive us. But it’s the striving, the attempt to pluck truth and beauty from the darkening sky, that is significant.
Rest in peace, Seamus Heaney. And thank you for illuminating your leg of the path.