Bob Collins, Chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland was one of 10 literary figures who paid tribute to the late poet Seamus Heaney on Saturday 31 August at the Lyric.
“When in 1995, I first read Seamus Heaney’s Nobel acceptance speech, Crediting Poetry, I was transported back more than forty years to the aerial wire coming through a hole bored in the frame of our kitchen window by his recollection of listening to the wireless as a child in the 1940s. But I was also dramatically struck by the relevance of his words to the work I was doing at that time in broadcasting in RTÉ where I spent thirty years of my life. When he said;
“I had to get close to the actual radio set in order to concentrate my hearing and in that intent proximity to the dial I grew familiar with the names of foreign stations … I also got used to hearing the short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from BBC to Radio Éireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world.”
With those words, he encapsulated much of the possibility and the responsibility of broadcasting as a public good, as public service. I thanked him for it and quoted him often. Perhaps it was that intuitive understanding that prompted him to give so much of himself to BBC and to RTÉ. His contributions have enriched the schedules and the archives of both, for this and, now, for all future generations. But they were a powerful way for him to play a role as a public person, as a thinker who posed challenges for all who had ears to hear.
Recalling his own childhood – and by extension all our childhoods – he spoke of being “schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible.”
Part of his calling, his choice, was to be a source of assistance to all of us in those adjudications. He knew the risks of that public role and expressed them. Writing in 1974, he said that “the idea of poetry as an art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram of political attitudes.” And in his Nobel speech, he spoke of “having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of political violence and public expectation. A public expectation, it has to be said, not of poetry as such but of political positions variously approvable by mutually disapproving groups.”
For him, it was simple. “The poet”, he said, “is on the side of undeceiving the world. It means being vigilant in the public realm.”
And he never ceased from lifting deception from the world. He spoke with clarity and rigour. He became a measure, a yardstick, an index of what was good. A moral force. And in the process, he became a spokesman for the entire society, his poetry the voice of the entire community. John Henry Newman said that writers were the “spokesmen and prophets of the human family.” Seamus Heaney discharged that duty to the full. In From the Republic of Conscience, he challenged “public leaders to weep to atone for their presumption to hold office.” Public leaders mind you, not just political leaders but all who wished to hold public positions. After the ceasefire and before the Belfast Agreement he wrote that “violence was destructive of the trust upon which new possibilities would have to be built.” How right and how farsighted he was.
He also said something in Government of the Tongue that we might well reflect on in these times in both jurisdictions on the island when he wrote of poetry that ” it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what’s going to happen and what we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as a distraction, but as pure concentration, a focus where our power of concentration is concentrated back on ourselves.” It has resonance for our consideration of all the arts.
Last night there was a clip of an interview with Seamus in an RTÉ bulletin. In it he said “If poetry and the arts do anything they can fortify your inner life – your inwardness. Listening together and knowing things together – which is what a culture is. If you know things together that you value, that is a kind of immunity system against things.” This wisdom in an interview conducted quickly on the fringes of a public event.
It is difficult to put into words and to convey fully how intimately his person and his poetry had become bound up with the life of the people, especially, I think and in my experience, in the Republic. How deeply he had become embedded in the affection of the people and in the life of the society – as no artist I can think of has ever quite achieved before. He had an extraordinary place in the public realm.
But that place in the public realm, his presence at state and solemn occasions was not as a symbol of state or as part of state but as a reminder to state of the importance of values, of the challenge of office, of the meaning of society, of the responsibility of leadership to the people, of the place of conscience. Through his life and through his poetry he spoke to the people. And the people listened.
He was intuitively trusted; his integrity appreciated; his directness reciprocated; his dignity sublime.
Two weeks ago, last night, I was in Lisdoonvarna, at the Merriman summer school at which he and Michael Longley gave a public reading. It was an unbelievable experience, powerfully moving and indelibly impressive. The intimacy of the relationship with the capacity audience and their appreciation of the work of both poets will remain forever in the memory. These were two poets who had done much to give poetry back to the people. This was Seamus Heaney being the voice of the community within the community.
I had the particular pleasure of being next to them both at dinner before the reading and, with our spouses – Marie, Edna and Mary, in the small bar of Sheedy’s hotel afterwards for nightcap, story, reflection, friendship and fun. It was a delight. More than that, it was a blessing.
Like his life, a blessing whose cup of bounty will flow all the days of our lives.”