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The poetry, and wisdom, of Seamus Heaney

The Irish Nobel laureate may be on to something with his notion that the arts can help people through troubled economic times.

April 15, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

Seamus Heaney, the greatest living English-language poet, turned 70 this week.

The Irish, of course, take their poets more seriously than most -- and they take their Nobel laureates, of whom Heaney is the fourth, very seriously indeed. Monday, then, was quite a day for the Derry-born farmer's son now known to literary Dublin's sharp-tongued gossips as "famous Seamus."

Famous he surely is. In the United Kingdom last year, two-thirds of all books sold by a living poet were by Heaney -- and this despite the fact that he once protested his inclusion in "The Penguin Book of English Verse" with these tart lines: "Be advised, my passport's green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen." No wonder that on a recent visit to The Times, Irish President Mary McAleese recited one of Heaney's poems from memory.

Ireland commemorated his birthday with an exhibit of art inspired by his work, with newly written string quartets and a symphony based on his poems, and with a nationally televised documentary on his life and writings. More than 400 invited guests listened to the poet deliver a birthday address, which was broadcast live over one of the national radio stations, and, afterward, there followed more than 12 continuous hours of Heaney in recorded readings of his collected poems.

This being the world in which we live, you can see the documentary on YouTube, and the address is on the Web as well. The collected poems will be available shortly in a 15-disc boxed set. As the poet told the Irish Times on Monday, along with "the mystery of poetry there was the marketing of product ... and commoditization comes with a certain amount of artistic acceptance."

But don't be fooled by Heaney's nod to commerce; his poems, which, as the Swedish Academy noted in 1995, "exalt everyday miracles and the living past," are not likely to be traded on anyone's exchange. The current economic downturn has hit Ireland harder than most countries, and its people have been deeply shaken by the prospect that this remarkable period of prosperity -- the first Ireland has known since before the Great Famine and the only period since then in which emigration has been negligible-- may be coming to an end.

In a recent interview, Heaney said he was often asked what the value of poetry was during times of economic recession. The answer, he explained, is that it is at just such moments of crisis that people realize that they do not live by economics alone. "If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness," Heaney said.

At first, that may seem like a quaint observation -- one of those poet-as-holy-fool lines. Yet an effort to "fortify your inward side," Heaney explained to another questioner, can act as a kind of "immune system" against material difficulties.

Now hard times are hard times, and those who see a chance for self-improvement in painful adversity are usually spared the opportunity. But there is something compelling about the notion that, as the most successful materialists in the history of the world, we in the United States and Western Europe might somehow rediscover what we all used to unselfconsciously call "inwardness."

What a turn that would be, a process that would involve periods of silence and moments when we turn things off. Imagine supermarket aisles free of cellphone conversations in which exasperated people debate potato chip selections with whomever is talking into those creepy earpieces. Imagine being disconnected -- even from listening to Seamus Heaney read his collected poems on your hand-held device. Imagine putting our material difficulties aside for even a brief period.

It doesn't seem imminent, exactly. But you never know. There's something a bit heartening on the inwardness front in the latest retail sales figures. They show that while overall purchases fell 9.9% over the last two months, sales of books only declined 3.2%. Could that be a trend -- one of those "mustard seeds" that President Obama's economic advisors keep talking about -- pointing toward a rediscovery of "inwardness"?

As Heaney wrote in his play, "The Cure at Troy," based on Sophocles' "Philoctetes": "History says, Don't hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme."

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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