Listening to Seamus

by September 15, 2010

Seamus Heaney

The Poetry Trust, a UK organization “driven by the conviction that poetry as an art form can make a significant contribution to the quality of our cultural life” (which, all things considered, is not a bad conviction to have), has kindly posted some podcasts from Seamus Heaney’s appearance at the 2010 Poetry Prom. Heaney reads selections from his new book of poetry, Human Chain, as well as some old favourites. (You’ll need Quicktime to listen to the podcast, which, if you don’t have it, can be obtained here.)

As many SCOPE readers will be aware, Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 (thoroughly disqualifying himself for our coveted “emerging artist” description). His acceptance speech is one clearly crafted by a master of the English language. Consider these two high-impact paragraphs; read them slowly and carefully and preferably out loud for best results:

One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.

* * * * *

It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power. I remember, for example, shocking myself with a thought I had about that friend who was imprisoned in the seventies upon suspicion of having been involved with a political murder: I shocked myself by thinking that even if he were guilty, he might still perhaps be helping the future to be born, breaking the repressive forms and liberating new potential in the only way that worked, that is to say the violent way – which therefore became, by extension, the right way. It was like a moment of exposure to interstellar cold, a reminder of the scary element, both inner and outer, in which human beings must envisage and conduct their lives. But it was only a moment. The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.

driven by the conviction
that poetry as an art form can make a significant
contribution to the quality of our cultural life

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