Seamus Heaney on Poetry

Seamus Heaney (2009)

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 opines 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 a 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 is right that it intimates “a possible order.” But Heaney is 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 edifice. But none of them 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.

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