ON THE DEATH OF SEAMUS HEANEY
I awoke this morning to a crying baby and the news that Seamus Heaney was dead at the age of 74. Somber notes to start the day. If I’d taken his death to heart harder I might be drinking a whiskey neat as I write. I feel as if I should be. Instead I’ve been reading “The Skunk” to my three-month-old and telling him what little I know about Mr. Heaney, which is as follows:
One, he was a fabulous poet. He had an ear reminiscent of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s and a knack for fantastic juxtapositions of words, images, and ideas. (To read more on Mr. Heaney’s ear for music, see Matthew Saks’s excellent essay at DenverCritic). I have always felt, upon opening his collections, that I will be in for a treat. Simply holding Opened Ground seems to expand my vocabulary and general intelligence if only by heady osmosis.
But the other thing I told my son is that Mr. Heaney will likely be best remembered historically for his translation of Beowulf, widely hailed as the most readable and lyrical translation of that epic ever penned for contemporary readers. Mr. Heaney’s Beowulf came out in 1999, was adopted into the Norton Anthologies in 2000, and pretty much every high school, college, and graduate student in the English-speaking world who has been assigned the poem since has read Mr. Heaney’s translation. I slyly told my boy that it’s a story about swords, monsters, and dragons that he’ll love and that he needs to have consumed it by age six. Of course, he’ll probably resent me. But if I had to squint at that tiny Norton typeset for hundreds of pages then so should he. Actually and perhaps partly in retrospect and out of nostalgia, I find that I quite like Beowulf and am looking forward to slogging through it again.
I will always love Mr. Heaney most, however, for his shorter verse, and will leave you now with these opening lines from “The Skunk,” which seem appropriate on the occasion of this sad day:
Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble
At a funeral mass, the skunk’s tail
Paraded the skunk.
– Thomas McCafferty