Poet Seamus Heaney Was A Teacher, Critic, Translator

Seamus Heaney was possibly the most-read living poet. He was admired by peers and critics and loved by the general public, which bought his books by the thousands. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Heaney died Friday in Dublin after what his family described in a statement as a 'brief illness." He was 74 years old.

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Few have used the English language to greater effect than Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who died today in Dublin. He was 74. Heaney was a Nobel laureate and the son of a farmer, a poet reluctantly drawn into the troubled politics of his homeland who attracted long lines of fans to his readings. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Born in Ireland's County Derry, Heaney left home at the age of 12 to go to boarding school. Heaney said the place where he grew up was still a source of energy and image bank for him.

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SEAMUS HEANEY: It was a way of life that was really to disappear in the 1950s, more or less, where we had a pump at the back of the house. We lit lamps, and we lit fires, so you're - it's - there's some vestigial sense of the Neolithic.

NEARY: Heaney's early works - his first collection, "Death of a Naturalist," was published in 1966 - are filled with images of rural life. Irish poet Eavan Boland says Heaney might have continued to focus on pastoral poetry, but he was born in Northern Ireland. And as the region's political strife grew increasingly more violent, he was, says Boland, conscripted into being a public figure.

EAVAN BOLAND: I don't think a poet of his caliber could have walked away from that, and he has a beautiful Nobel address where he tries to say what it was like to be caught in that violence and to believe that language could affect it. I think of him as conscripted because I can't imagine that he would have chosen that subject matter.

NEARY: But even as the troubles of the north seeped into his poetry, Heaney, a Catholic, tried to see the conflict in human rather than political terms. Here, he reads an excerpt from his poem "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing."

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HEANEY: (Reading) The times are out of joint / But I incline as much to rosary beads / As to the jottings and analyses / Of politicians and newspapermen / Who've scribbled down the long campaign from gas / And protest to gelignite and Sten, / Who proved upon their pulses 'escalate', / 'Backlash' and 'crack down', 'the provisional wing', / 'Polarization' and 'long-standing hate'. / Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing.

NEARY: Heaney has often been called Ireland's greatest poet since Yeats, but Boland says Heaney's influence in Ireland reached well beyond the literary community.

BOLAND: For an awful lot of readers, he was this lyric Virgilian guide who had, you know, accompanied them through this darkness of a conflict, who gave them words to think about it, who gave them words to think about what happened in Ireland when all the other words pointed to the darkness of division. I think that put him into a lot of people's hearts.

NEARY: Heaney's influence reached well beyond Ireland as well. In addition to his poetry, he was a well-respected critic, translator and teacher. African-American poet Kevin Young is curator of Heaney's letters and papers at Emory University. Young was Heaney's student at Harvard in 1990.

KEVIN YOUNG: He wrote about growing up in the country and visiting the country, and my grandparents were from the country, so just personally he gave me license to write about Louisiana where my family was from, and I hadn't seen that rural tradition represented in such a realistic, powerful vernacular way as Heaney did.

NEARY: Young says Heaney had a gift for making poetry accessible to everyone.

YOUNG: He could really draw you in even if you thought you didn't like poetry. You might not have known what poetry was if it wasn't for Heaney.

NEARY: Young says, this morning, when he heard that Seamus Heaney had died, the first thing he did was reach up to his bookshelf and take down a collection of Heaney's poems to help him grieve. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: And we end with the Seamus Heaney poem "Death of a Painter."

(Reading) Not a tent of blue but a peek of gold / From her coign of vantage in the studio, / A Wicklow cornfield in the gable window. / Long gazing at the hill - but not Cezanne, / More Thomas Hardy working to the end / In his crocheted old heirloom of a shawl. / And now not Hardy but a butterfly, / One of the multitude he imagined airborne / Through Casterbridge, down the summer thoroughfare. / And now not a butterfly but Jonah entering / The whale's mouth, as the Old English says, / Like a mote through a minster door.

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