Daily Archives: March 20, 2014

Seamus Heaney on Poetry

An earlier post used music as a way of revealing deep truths. This reminded me of something I read by the Nobel prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939 -2013), who was the most famous poet in the world before his death. Here he is on what poetry is, wants to be, and how it can bring meaning to life:

[A poem] begins in delight … and ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion … in its repose the poem gives us a premonition of harmonies desired and not inexpensively achieved. In this way, the order of art becomes an achievement intimating a possible order beyond itself, although its relation to that further order remains promissory rather than obligatory. Art is not an inferior reflection of some ordained heavenly system but a rehearsal of it in earthly terms; art does not trace the given map of a better reality but improvises an inspired sketch of it.1

Heaney believed that meaning does not derive from one large idea like god, but from many smaller ideas put together from poems, art, conversations, and experiences. A  good brief poem hastens the encounter of language with meaning.

But does poetry (or art or music) intimate an order beyond itself, can it unravel the mystery of meaning? I don’t think so. Heaney has it right that it intimates “a possible order.” But Heaney has it wrong when he suggests an order exists that poetry is a rehearsal for, or a sketch of. This implies that the order is out there waiting to be uncovered. No.

The only goodness, beauty, justice, truth and unity is the kind we build from the ground up, through arduous toil, as mature adults without heavenly help, and with the outcome uncertain. Poetry, like the rest of literature, music, art, and politics is a small part of the ediface. But none see through to a beyond. The only human endeavor capable of seeing past our intuitions and realizing our dreams is science. Whether it will succeed or not remains to be seen.

All of this may not ameliorate our fears, but it is an honest appraisal of our situation.


1. Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, London: Faber & Faber, 1988, pp. 93-94.

More Songs About Time

A recent post about the Passage of Time contained a few music videos on time’s passing. An astute reader sent me three more videos touching on the same subject. I was moved by them all. They reminded me that music  communicates something that prose cannot; it evokes different sentiments. Perhaps that is why Gabriel Marcel, the existential philosopher and concert pianist, thought that many great philosophical ideas couldn’t be put it into words but could be played on the piano. (For more see his : Music and Philosophy, trans. Maddox and Wood.)

The first one is a little known Sinatra tune, “100 Years From Today.” It’s philosophical argument is straightforward, live life now because in a hundred years you won’t be here.

The next one is from the group Fountains of Wayne and the song is titled: “All Kinds of Time.” It uses a football quarterback surveying the field in the last few moments of the game as a metaphor for the moments of our lives. For me  it evokes the sense of eternity in the moment, as well as the possibility of doing great things with a single act. But I’ll leave you to interpret it for yourself.

The final song is “Wheels of a Dream,” from the musical Ragtime. It conveys the hope that each new child will move us forward; and most importantly that the dream of a better world keeps us going.

I thank my reader for his contribution.