In 2013 we lost two Nobel laureates, a revered editor and teacher, plus writers of crime fiction, literary fiction, poetry, history, essays, biographies, screenplays, mega-bestsellers, movie criticism, and memoirs. Here is a highly selective compendium:
Evan S. Connell
While it may not be accurate to pin Evan S. Connell with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer,” it is probably fair to say that his restless intelligence and refusal to settle into a niche prevented him from attracting as large an audience as he deserved. Connell, who died on Jan. 10 at 88, produced novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and biographies. He wrote about repressed WASPS, a Navy pilot, a rapist, alchemists and Crusaders, cowboys and Indians, and he was equally at ease writing about art, religion, science, and history. He didn’t enjoy his first commercial success until he was 60, with 1984’s Son of the Morning Star, a non-fiction exploration of Custer’s Last Stand. Until then, due to his books’ modest sales, he had supported himself with some not-very-odd jobs, such as reading meters and delivering packages.
For many readers, Connell’s most indelible novels are Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969), about the airless world of the country club set in his native Kansas City, Mo. Wells Tower has noted that the short story that presaged the novels, “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” is a series of “mosaic tile vignettes” rather than a conventional narrative. The vignettes accumulate force until they quietly outdo all the screaming and plate-smashing, the drunkenness and infidelity and angst of so much suburban fiction. In the Bridges’ world, as Tower noted, “the wisdom of Emily Post seems to operate as Newtonian law.” Furthermore, “In the vacuum of Kansas City, no one can hear you scream.”
Mrs. Bridge tried to do everything the way it should be done. Mrs. Bridge did not like to hurt anyone’s feelings by making them feel inferior. Mrs. Bridge had always voted the way her husband told her to vote, but one day she starts reading books about political issues and since she believes in equality she decides she must persuade Mr. Bridge to vote liberal. Here’s what happens at the end of the story when she prepares to confront her husband:
She really intended to force a discussion on election eve. She was going to quote from the book of Zokoloff. But he came home so late, so tired, that she had not the heart to upset him. She concluded it would be best to let him vote the way he always had, and she would do as she herself wished; still upon getting to the polls, which were conveniently located in the country club shopping district, she became doubtful and a little uneasy. And when the moment finally came she pulled the lever recording her wish for the world to remain as it was.
Connell never married, never owned a computer, never sought notoriety. In the cheesy parlance of our age, he declined to become a brand. It’s downright un-American, and quite possibly heroic. “I hate to be recognized,” he once said. “I want to be anonymous.”
Chinua Achebe exploded on the world literary scene with the 1958 publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, which invoked Ibo voices from his native Nigeria, boldly challenged European concepts of Africans, and in a single stroke anointed Achebe the father of African fiction. Published during the twilight of British colonial rule, the novel set out to show, as Achebe put it, “that African peoples did not hear of civilization for the first time from Europeans.”
Achebe, who died on March 21 at 82, produced five novels and many short stories over the next three decades. He did not let his fellow Africans off lightly. His satirical fourth novel, A Man of the People, exposed the corruption and irresponsibility of many post-colonial politicians, and it ends with a coup much like the one in 1966 that plunged Nigeria into a devastating civil war. Despite a period of writer’s block brought on by the war, Achebe went on to produce essays, poems, and memoirs, and he oversaw the publication of more than 100 texts that made other African writers’ work available to a worldwide audience. A car accident in 1990 left him paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, yet he continued to write, travel, teach, and lecture. Perhaps his most appropriate epitaph came from Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5. “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe,” Mandela wrote, “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
I suspect I was not alone in assuming that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who had an Indian name and wrote so knowingly about India, was a native of India. She was not. She war a German Jew, born in Cologne and educated in England, who married an Indian architect in 1951 and moved with him to Delhi, where they raised three daughters and she began writing fiction about her adopted homeland.
Jhabvala, who died on April 3 at 85, started by writing fiction that trained a satirical, Jane Austen-ish eye on the modernizing Indian middle class, its struggles to balance old and new ways, what E.M. Forster called “the unlovely chaos that lies between obedience and freedom.” In time her gaze grew more acid, especially when she was describing sham gurus, Western seekers, and anyone who tried to deceive themselves and others. Her eighth novel, Heat and Dust, won the Booker Prize in 1975, and in all she published a dozen novels and eight collections of short stories.
But it was her screenwriting, particularly her collaborations with the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, that brought her widespread fame. Their first project was an adaptation of her own 1960 novel, The Householder, and many of her other two dozen screenplays sprang from literary sources, including the novels of Henry James, Peter Cameron, Diane Johnson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jean Rhys, and Evan S. Connell (she conflated Connell’s novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge into Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in 1990, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward). Jhabvala won two Oscars, for her adaptations of Forster’s Howards End and A Room With a View.
Though the headline on her obituary in The New York Times read “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Screenwriter, Dies at 85,” she made no secret that she regarded screenwriting as secondary to the writing of fiction. In her Who’s Who entry, the “recreation” category says “writing film scripts.” And as she once wrote to a friend, “I live so much more in and for the books.”
When I heard that Elmore Leonard had died on Aug. 20 at 87, I salved my sorrow by re-reading one of his Motor City masterpieces, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. It opens with a dry description of a juicily corrupt judge that resonates on several levels. Goes like this:
In the matter of Alvin B. Guy, Judge of Recorder’s Court, City of Detroit:
The investigation of the Judicial Tenure Commission found the respondent guilty of misconduct in office and conduct clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice. The allegations set forth in the formal complaint were that Judge Guy:
1.) Was discourteous and abusive to counsel, litigants, witnesses, court personnel, spectators and news reporters.
2.) Used threats of imprisonment or promises of probation to induce pleas of guilty.
3.) Abused the power of contempt.
4.) Used his office to benefit friends and acquaintances.
5.) Bragged of his sexual prowess openly.
6.) Was continually guilty of judicial misconduct that was not only prejudicial to the administration of justice but destroyed respect of the office he holds.
I read those opening lines, originally published in 1980, as a thinly veiled portrait of the man then serving as mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, who was every bit as profane, nasty, and corrupt as the fictional Judge Alvin B. Guy. But another Detroit writer, my pen pal Loren D. Estleman, set me straight on this, informing me that Leonard’s Judge Alvin Guy was actually inspired by a notorious Detroit judge named James Del Rio, who packed a pistol under his judicial robes and once presided over a shootout in his courtroom that left a defense attorney dead. No matter. The important thing is that those opening lines of City Primeval, like so much of Leonard’s fiction, were not only timely, they were timeless: they illuminated the eternal venality of the human soul, which was Leonard’s inexhaustible subject.
To wit: Two months after Leonard died, another corrupt former Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for an array of misdeeds that would have made Alvin Guy, James Del Rio, and Coleman Young proud, including racketeering, extortion, bribery, fraud, income tax evasion, and putting friends and family on the city payroll. Elmore Leonard always nailed it, whether he was writing about crooks in his primeval hometown of Detroit, or crooks in Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Djibouti. R.I.P., Dutch. You are missed.
In 1995 Seamus Heaney became the fourth Irish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, following in the outsized footsteps of his countrymen William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett. The fact that neither Flann O’Brien nor James Joyce made the cut speaks to the magnitude of Heaney’s achievement. (Oscar Wilde died a year before the first Nobel Prize was awarded to Sully Prudhomme.)
Seamus Heaney (pronounced HEE-nee) was born in rural County Derry in Northern Ireland to a Catholic family, and his poetry was forever veined with the physical world of his childhood — he could remember interiors without electric lights, farmers plowing with horses, women churning butter until their hands bloomed with blisters. But Heaney, who died on Aug. 30 at 74, was no pastoral nostalgist. Beneath his rural tableaux runs a river of sex and violence, even in poems written before the Troubles washed his homeland in blood. He carried contradictions with a velvety ease that echoed the sound of his velvety voice: he was a Romantic realist, a rural cosmopolitan, an archaic modernist, an atheist who welcomed miracles. He regarded words as “bearers of history and mystery.” What could be felt (and done) with the hands was every bit as important to him as what could be seen with the eyes. His poetry was pungent, physical, earthy.
In the poem “Seed Cutters,” he makes explicit that the people of his childhood linked him to worlds past:
They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.
In the poem “Digging,” from his debut 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist, Heaney revealed how his poetry sprang from the soil:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging, I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through drills
Where he was digging…
By God, the old man could handle a spade
Just like his old man…
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Heaney’s translation of Beowulf became a bestseller, and in 2002 he brought out Finders Keepers, a collection of previously published essays and lectures. He described the book’s entries this way: “They are testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for.”
The Beats were basically a boys’ club, their moveable frat party open to few females. One who made it past the bouncers was Carolyn Cassady, the second wife of Neal Cassady, that “western kinsman of the sun” who became Jack Kerouac’s muse and the kinetic character Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Carolyn Cassady, who died on Sept. 20 at 90, became the character Camille in the novel, by turns a thrill-killing shrew and a dedicated wife, the woman who dutifully stayed home to raise Neal/Dean’s children whenever he and Kerouac/Sal Paradise hit the road in pursuit of a fresh dose of enlightenment, girls and kicks. At her husband’s urging, Carolyn also became Kerouac’s lover.
Carolyn Cassady produced two memoirs, Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal (1976) and Off the Road: My Years with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg (1990). She said she wrote the books as correctives to the notion, so widespread among young people after the 1957 publication of On the Road, that the holy troika of the Beat generation led lives of unfettered bliss. “I kept thinking that the imitators never knew and don’t know how miserable these men were,” she once said. “They think they were having marvelous times — joy, joy, joy — and they weren’t at all.”
Neal and Carolyn were married in 1947, when she was several months pregnant with their first of three children. Being married to Neal Cassady — street kid, jailbird, car thief, serial philanderer, aspiring writer, and irresistible volcano of energy — cannot have been a day at the beach. Here’s how Kerouac describes a typical Neal Cassady eruption in On the Road:
I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947; he got a job on the railroad and made a lot of money. He became the father of a cute little girl, Amy Moriarty. Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ’49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll. He bought the car on the spot. Ed Dunkel was with him. Now they were broke. Dean calmed Camille’s fears and told her he’d be back in a month. “I’m going to New York and bring Sal back.” She wasn’t too pleased at this prospect.
“But what is the purpose of all this? Why are you doing this to me?”
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing, darling — ah — hem — Sal has pleaded and begged with me to come and get him, it is absolutely necessary for me to — but we won’t go into all these explanations — and I’ll tell you why…No, listen, I’ll tell you why.” And he told her why, and of course it made no sense.
Carolyn believed Neal had a split personality — a hard-working family man at war with “a wild nature driven by sexual desire.” She divorced him in 1963 and five years later he was dead at 41, his body sprawled beside a Mexican railroad track, full of alcohol and drugs, dehydrated, flat worn out. Kerouac, bloated and alcoholic, followed him a year later. But Carolyn, the product of a conventional upper-middle class family, lived on, designing theater costumes, painting portraits, writing her memoirs, and observing the indefatigable juggernaut of the Beat Industry with a jaundiced eye, even though her two books were inarguably a part of the juggernaut.
During the 1978 filming of Heart Beat, starring Sissy Spacek as Carolyn and Nick Nolte as Neal, Carolyn told The Washington Post, “Sissy’s got me all cleaned up, I’m the most wonderful heroine. I go through everything and come out unscathed. I saw the dailies the other day and I cracked up. Everything was so romantic, I was crying. It could have been like that, but it wasn’t at all.”
And she didn’t even try to hide her disdain when director Walter Salles brought On the Road to the screen in 2012. She dismissed the actors cast to play Jack and Neal, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, as “wimps.” To make matters worse, chirpy Kirsten Dunst played the role of Carolyn/Camille. Carolyn Cassady did herself one last favor and declined to see the movie.
Tom Clancy created his very own genre, the “techno-thriller,” and loaded it with high-tech military hardware, virtuous Americans, cardboard villains, and stories that never stopped galloping. Clancy’s was a chiaroscuro world of vivid blacks and whites: capitalism is good, communism is bad, the C.I.A. wears shining armor, and the world would be better off without politicians, liberals, terrorists, drug cartels, reporters, and Hollywood. While working unhappily as an insurance salesman, Clancy sold the manuscript of his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, for $5,000 in 1984. It became a bestseller after winning the endorsement of President Ronald Reagan, who called it “my kind of yarn.”
Clancy, who died on Oct. 1 at 66, was rarely accused of being a masterful prose stylist — one reviewer dismissed his writing as “the verbal equivalent of a high-tech video game” — but there’s no arguing that Clancy knew how to connect with an audience. More than 100 million copies of his books are in print, 17 reached #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and an A-list of Hollywood actors (Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford) have played Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, in assorted blockbuster movies. And perhaps as a retort to that sniffy critic of his prose, Clancy happily arranged for his thrillers to be turned into video games.
Clancy made a silo full of money off his writing and he knew how to enjoy it. He bought a piece of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and he lived in a 24-room mansion on the Chesapeake Bay with an indoor pool, a gun range in the basement, and a World War II-vintage M1A1 tank parked on the lawn. A reporter once asked Clancy if he ever drove the tank.
Too dangerous, Clancy replied. “It’s essentially a lawn ornament.”
Oscar Hijuelos’s greatest hit, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, unspools like an extended, ecstatic song, full of horn blasts, the patter of congas and bongos, the whirl of frenzied dancers. It is narrated by the broken-down Cuban bandleader Cesar Castillo, as he sits in a shabby Harlem hotel room drinking whisky and remembering “those glorious nights of love so long ago.” He also remembers life’s sensual pleasures — the food, the cars, the music, the streets, women’s hats, women’s underclothes, and, above all, the many women he loved. Much as he’d like to, he can’t forget his life’s many missed opportunities. The novel is a sad sexy dream.
Hijuelos, who was born in New York City to Cuban parents, suffered a heart attack while playing tennis on Oct. 12 and died at age 62. He grew up speaking Spanish at the family’s home in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan, and acquired English during a long hospital stay when he was three years old. He wrote in English, producing eight works of fiction and a memoir, all of it a way of wrestling with the immigrant experience and his feeling that he was an outsider in his own culture. He was more American-Cuban than Cuban-American, and the sensation of feeling stranded between cultures caused him no small amount of pain. “I eventually came to the point that, when I heard Spanish, I found my heart warming,” he wrote late in life. “And that was the moment when I began to look through another window, not out onto 118th Street, but into myself — through my writing, the process by which, for all my earlier alienation, I had finally returned home.”
Hijeulos was working at an advertising agency in 1983 when he sold his first novel, Our House in the Last World, but success, including a 1992 movie of Mambo Kings starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante, eventually allowed him to write full time. In 2008, after being “gainfully unemployed” for 20 years, he started teaching at Duke University and discovered, to is surprise, that he enjoyed the job. “I have to say, I love the kids,” he said. “It’s a joyful thing to see the future sitting before you.”
Before his death on Nov. 16 at 89, Louis Rubin may have done more than anyone to prove that New York City does not own a monopoly on quality book publishing in America. Rubin, a revered teacher and prolific author, co-founded Algonquin Press in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1983 as a springboard for writers, especially young writers of the Southern persuasion who’d gotten the cold shoulder from the insular New York publishing world. Rubin’s students included John Barth, Annie Dillard, and Kaye Gibbons, and Algonquin published a small army of celebrated Southerners, including Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, and Clyde Edgerton, as well as one native of Canada, Sara Gruen, whose third novel, Water for Elephants, was turned down by her New York publisher. After Algonquin published the novel in 2011, it sold millions of copies, became a #1 bestseller, and was made into a major motion picture. It was not the only time Louis Rubin had the last laugh at New York’s expense.
Doris Lessing, who died on Nov. 17 at 94, will be best remembered as the author of The Golden Notebook, a novel as free-wheeling and unconventional as the woman who wrote it. She produced a staggering body of work in her long life, including novels, science fiction, memoirs, essays, poems, even a libretto for an opera adapted from two of her books, with music by Philip Glass.
Born in Persia (now Iran) to British parents, she grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), married young, had two children, divorced, had another child, then left for England to pursue her literary dreams. She was an iconoclast who railed against racism and sexism, a Catholic who became a Communist, then an anti-Communist, and finally an atheist. Eventually she abandoned all -isms, never apologizing or looking back. It was a life both chilly and inspiring.
In this age of literary careerists panting for praise and prizes, the thing I’ll remember about the free-spirited Lessing was the way she greeted the news that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007. When she climbed out of a taxi in front of her London home and got the big news from a squadron of reporters camped on her front stoop, she said, “Oh, Christ! I couldn’t care less.” Then she added, “The whole thing is so graceless and stupid and bad mannered.”
Oh, Christ, how refreshing!
This list is, by design, selective, but I want to mention a few other noteworthy writers who died in 2013. In alphabetical order they are: the renegade preacher and novelist Will D. Campbell, the biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer, the art critic Arthur C. Danto, the film critics Roger Ebert and Stanley Kauffmann, the historian Stanley Karnow, and the author of young-adult novels Ned Vizzini.
Through your words you will all live on.
Images courtesy of Bill Morris.
I don’t think I ever quite knew myself until I read Seamus Heaney. I can’t remember exactly which of his poems I read first, but that’s not important. What is important is what his poems did to me. When I encountered “Blackberry Picking,” I first felt the full force of what a poem can do. The poem describes picking blackberries in the spring and hoarding them in a tub in the barn, then discovering that they have begun to rot, ending with the lines “It wasn’t fair / That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. / Each year I’d hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” The poem hit me somewhere right at the base of my ribs. It created an actual physical sensation. When I was a kid, I was always catching small animals, usually crickets and frogs, and keeping them in coffee cans, then forgetting about them for days, only to return and find their corpses. I remember the mingled smell of dead crickets and Folgers coffee — those once lovely canfuls.
For a long time, that same feeling, that of my own emotions synching up with those described by a poem, eluded description. For me, it was ineffable. The connection with a poem, with a poet, while one of the strongest that I felt, sidestepped definition. Appropriately though, in his essay “Feelings Into Words,” collected in Preoccupations, Heaney provided an answer for the question he had raised:
Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up. How, then, do you find it? In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else; you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in in through your ear and enters the echo chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system in such a way that your reaction will be, ‘Ah, I wish I had said that, in that particular way.’ This other writer, in fact, has spoken something essential to you, something you recognize instinctively as a true sounding of aspect of yourself and your experience.
For me, Heaney was the place where I definitively heard that voice in several aspects — from his content down to individual phrases and chunks of sound. Heaney wrote, especially in his early volumes, of life in rural Northern Ireland and all that entailed, from the loss of a livelihood earned through manual labor and agriculture in Death of a Naturalist and Door Into the Dark to the way in which the political concerns of the Troubles were embedded in the very archaeology of the place in his magnum opus, North. The sense of place in his poetry is extraordinary. For me, his content choices were much more than examples of Heaney taking up the old poetic mortar and pestle of “to be universal, you must be local,” they unfolded the world of poetry for me in places where I didn’t even realize there were creases.
My father grew up on a rabbit farm and helped his father poach from the National Forest for supper, while my mother’s family of nine planted five acres of potatoes to live on through the winter, her father making his meager living skidding pine logs with mules. My mother’s family didn’t have indoor plumbing until the late 1960s and used a dug well, complete with bucket and windlass, for water. Home for me is the Ouachita Mountains, a place even more innocuous then pre-Troubles Ulster: a small mountain range 500 miles from the ass end of the Appalachians.
In Heaney’s voice I found a license, almost an imperative, to write about the basic things that I had grown up around; if Heaney’s Moyola and Castledawson and Mossbawn mattered and had something profound to offer the world, so did my own region straddling the Arkansas-Oklahoma state line. I should have seen this before; I had been reading Frost and certainly could have picked up the same things from him, but, lovely as Frost is, his New England didn’t resonate with me in the same contorted but insistent ways that Heaney’s Northern Ireland did. Why is that? For me, it amounts to how I identified with Heaney’s voice.
Heaney’s voice went much deeper than regionalism, not only in his persistent archaeological motifs, which critics have identified as representative of the collective unconsciousness, but in the basic noise of his poems — the tangible aural sensations that create meaning almost independent from the semantics of the language, scraping down even further into the unconscious. When Heaney writes of bringing his grandfather “milk in a bottle corked sloppily with paper,” he works nearly with onomatopoeia, what his mentor Philip Hobsbaum termed “Heaneyspeak,” which I find to be little more than a cute way of referring to Heaney’s poetic voice. Heaney’s obsession with sound (again, something I might have, in another life, first noticed in Frost and his “sound of sense”) struck me immediately. In “Blackberry Picking,” the line “where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots” provided a perfect nugget of voice, marrying sound — the words “briars scratched” and “bleached our boots” make the exact sound as the actions that they describe — with the larger concern of identifiable content. I have bleached a couple pairs of boots myself.
I find a rightness, for lack of a better term, in Heaney’s voice on all levels. I don’t need to try to find exactly how the position of the tongue in pronouncing “Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting” perfectly encapsulates the lines’ meaning, nor do I have to search for the tenuous relationship between Heaney’s description of the fearful transformation from tadpole to bullfrog in “Death of a Naturalist” with my own experience of catching and hatching tadpoles and being frightened by the plop of bullfrogs in my grandmother’s pond. Heaney’s voice is true, and it is readily apparent. That is enough. I don’t need the critics or Carl Jung to tell me that depictions of amphibian fear tap into the collective unconsciousness and that the water of the flax dam represents sex, further reinforced by the reproduction of the frogs, etc. etc. I read the poem and I know, in a very visceral way, that Heaney has gotten something very right, that his voice has executed a perfect arpeggio in a brilliant cadenza.
“Blackberry Picking” offered up yet another lesson in voice years after I first read it. I had always heard the poem in my own accent, and read it with my own voice. In a dialect that is firmly within the sphere of the upper American South, the only apparent rhyme in the poem is “clot/knot.” I had once read an essay that alluded to the “effective use of slant rhyme in the poem,” but did not offer any examples. I quickly assumed that the reference to “slant rhyme” was a mistake. Coming from a dialect which monophthongizes long “i” sounds to a fronted “ah” and merges the pronunciation of “pin” and “pen” to both sound as “pin,” the words “sun” and “ripen” don’t even come close to rhyming. The stress patterns of my own speech didn’t help. The word “ripen” is always pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, the second is diminished to the point of barely even being voiced. This manner of speech, which formed and forms my own internal reading voice, tends to take iambic pentameter out back for a good woodshedding, never mind that I didn’t really learn to even recognize iambs for a long while after encountering Heaney. In short, while the poem managed to strike me with great force, I was missing what amounts to half of Heaney’s craftsmanship. I didn’t discover any of this until I actually heard recordings of Heaney reading the poem, the way he heard it, in his own natural voice. Not only was every line in iambic pentameter, but every line rhymed in an array of brilliant little half rhymes. The heavens opened and light shone down illuminating, if nothing else, the full extent of Heaney’s skill.
In Heaney’s fifth volume, North, he creates and interprets Ireland through its long history of Germanic incursions beginning with the Vikings. In the title poem, he imagines the voices of dead Vikings as “ocean-deafened voices” and “the longship’s swimming tongue,” which tells him:
. . . lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.
In appropriating this archaeological voice, Heaney delivers a series of admonishments that are instructions to the poet as well as the reader. This voice is different, more ancient — unmetered stresses, no rhymes. It’s no wonder that Heaney wound up translating Beowulf; he was familiar with its voice, able to call it up from the “belly of stone ships,” to utter its implorement: “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.” This imperative struck me. “Trust!” it said; whatever your hands have known, trust in it. As long as your eye is clear, trust. Lie down. Burrow. Like Antaeus, be nourished by the soil, by a sense of place. Trust your place, trust your own geography, trust in your own culture, trust your own experience.
For Heaney, this experience, this nubbed treasure, like all good treasures, is buried. As a poet, Heaney exhumes things. In “Bogland,” the last poem from Door into the Dark, he writes of the bringing up of ancient artifacts from Irish bogs, and that the bogs themselves “might be Atlantic seepage. / The wet centre is bottomless.” Speaking about the poem in an essay, Heaney notes that he derived the last line from hearing old people tell children not to play in the bogs because they were bottomless. This mining of memory is essential to Heaney’s poetry. In trying to access things that Heaney only half-consciously knows, he bores into my unconscious as a reader — the things that I too am only half-aware of. Maybe that’s why the feeling I get reading Heaney approaches inexplicable, conveyed only through metaphors of physical sensation: what Heaney has to say does something to my subconscious; his voice resonates there on that low level. It takes up residence with all the archetypes and shadows in the part of my psyche that, if mapped, would be labeled “Here Be Monsters” in ornate script wreathed in a facsimile of fog.
Heaney’s most famous poem “Digging” set the tenor for his early work, celebrating the subterranean and particularly the role that writing plays in exploring it. The poem describes the memories Heaney has of his father and grandfather digging, but laments that “I’ve no spade to follow men like them,” then goes on to assert, “Between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” Like his grandfather who digs up turf for fuel, Heaney unearths a fuel that is no less important. Heaney once remarked that, to someone from his background, the word “work” meant physical work only, that one could not be “upstairs reading a book and say ‘oh, I’m working,’” and that “Digging” was partly a defense of his own way of life against the mores of his own culture. “Digging” shows the conflict between tradition and modernity. In this way it participates, in a meaningful way, in the development of Western thought. To be egregiously brief, the Ancient, Medieval, and Modern periods can be said to be concerned with humanity’s perception of conflict with three different iterations of higher power. The ancients conceived of gods who dealt out inescapable fate, then gods were replaced with a singular God who, though he was all powerful, still managed to allow evil in the world. Most recently, God has been replaced with science and technology, their conflict with humanity was probably first noticed by the Romantics and has persisted, more or less, until the present day. Heaney knew and lived that conflict — of watching his father’s occupation of cattle dealer fade away. It is equally important to me, in very practical terms. My grandfather worked in the timber, cutting down trees for a living, the next generation, my mother’s two brothers, were both carpenters, building houses from those same trees. My grandfather had a fourth grade education; my uncles finished only high school; I became a college boy and sure as hell can’t start cutting down trees for a living. In both a metaphorical and literal sense, all the trees have already been cut.
Maybe “Digging” seems old hat. It was written in the mid-1960s and was one of Heaney’s first poems. However, there is a reason that it is Heaney’s most anthologized poem. Its strident voice proclaims that poetry, that literature, is important in a time when the nutritional label on a box of Post-Toasties is considered a text and given equal status with Keats’s Odes.
In “The Forge,” Heaney plainly states in the first line “All I know is a door into the dark,” then goes on to describe a blacksmith who “expends himself in shape and music,” who upon looking out his door at the passing lights of traffic, turns back inside “To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.” For a long time I read Heaney as looking out into the dark from inside the blacksmith shop, but I was wrong. Blacksmith shops are always dark so that the smith can properly see the color of the metal he’s working; different temperatures are indicated by the color, from reds to yellows and whites, each ideal for specific tasks: cutting, welding, drawing. Heaney looks in on this dark smithy; he has the capacity to see it, his eye is “clear as the bleb of the icicle.” His vantage point standing, as it were, with one foot in the past and another in the present allows him to see this murky scene. All his foundational knowledge is in these old ways; his family did not own a car when he was growing up, and his father plowed their fields with horses. Heaney “beats real iron out” as he dredges up these artifacts. The farther down one goes into the ground, the older things are, back even to the Iron Age: this is the basic tenet of geology and archaeology. Heaney is connected to these old, chthonic things. He disinters them and remembers them. In a sense, he members them again, creates them anew through his writing.
Heaney gives the best explanation of what he does in the last poem of Death of a Naturalist. “Personal Helicon” is a poem about wells and Heaney’s fascination with them. Various wells are characterized as “So deep you saw no reflection in it,” “fructified” with “long roots” and in particular one that “had echoes, gave back your own call/ with a clean new music in it.” He ends the poem with:
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
Heaney claims to see himself, not necessarily as an unadulterated reflection, but through echoes that come back up from the wells that he has dug into the darkness. The darkness of this well, bored into the deep strata of the unconscious, echoes with his voice and gives back a “clean new music.” Heaney writes as a means to hear himself, in order to truly ascertain his own voice. To do this he must work in the underground medium of his upbringing. It is the darkness that must be used to create the echo. The well must be dug deep, into those long, fructified roots of the subconscious, before it can echo. The discovery of this well and its echo is an exhumation, and even a bit of a resurrection. Though they are echoes, that “clean new music” carries a ring that comes from beyond the grave. And what grave is as deep as a well?
In hearing Heaney’s voice echoing, I was able to get a sense of my own voice. I could use, at first at least, Heaney’s well to shout in, to see what came back, to find what those fructified roots are made of. Eventually I need to dig my own well, into my own fructified roots, with its own echo. Of course my own well may tap into the same underground spring as Heaney’s — perhaps all wells do — but I first needed Heaney’s well to become aware of what a well can do — of what digging can do. I needed Heaney’s voice to know what a voice could sound like, and through Heaney I discovered my own voice. I learned to listen to the timbre of its echoes.
Seamus Heaney recently passed away. It was reported that his last words were a text message to his wife that read noli timere, which, translated into good King James English, is “Be not afraid.” Of course, Seamus was sharp enough to alter the conjugation from nolite timere found in St. Matthew, which is in the second person plural to the singular “noli.” This surprised me, not because a dying man still knew enough Latin to not only quote from the Vulgate but to give the proper conjugation on the fly, but rather than Heaney’s last words were via text message. My perception of him as a poet of the soil, one who spoke of thatched roofs and plowing by hand, was shattered by the news of his last words being transmitted via text message. Of course I read this news on a smartphone, but somehow it was still a staggering blow.
It only took me five minutes of careful thought to reestablish equilibrium. So what if Heaney and cellphones seemed incongruous to me? His life as a man of letters probably seemed just as contradictory to the people of his childhood. From the external world to our senses, from our senses to our brains, from our brains into language, from that language into writing, from the handwritten original to print in a book, from a printed book through the whole shebang again, back through taps of thumbs into a text message and radio waves, beams of invisible light, and a torrent of ones and zeros — it’s all just space between the infinite notches of Plato’s divided line.
Philo Farnsworth, inventor of the first electronic image pickup device that made television possible, was inspired by furrows of plowed earth and envisioned a device which reproduced images by scanning then reproducing them one row at a time. It wasn’t nearly as incongruous as I had thought. Heaney writes in his “Glanmore Sonnets” that,
Now the good life could be to cross a field
And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe
Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled.
Arting a paradigm, that’s our real business. The medium doesn’t matter. Give us dancing electrons. Be not afraid. Dig with them.