Exalting everyday miracles


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Category: Profiles Date: 01 Nov 95

‘...these friends, both great poets, Walcott and Heaney, now both Nobel Laureates, are saying to us that the most important thing in this world may not be the stupidity or ignorance of people, or the squabble over superiority of your race, religion, wealth and yes, even intellect, but an ability to exalt everyday miracles.’


In the midst of this election din, the mass wooing, the hoarse protestations and accusations, the whispered and public political allegiances, the cynicism, and the thunderous expectancy of November 6, comes the welcome news of a man who has made a million US dollars not in a smarmy business deal, or Lotto, but because he is a poet. This year, a 56 year old Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Ironically, Heaney, whose poetry has the capacity to soothe and quiet the clamour we now live in is himself no stranger to conflict. It was said of Heaney by his critic friend Blake Morrison “Heaney understands the race-pull, the gnarled roots and ugly blooms of tribal and religious conflict.” But Heaney is no wishy washy liberal. Humanitarian though he is, skeptical of nationalistic fervour and deeply opposed to violence, he is nevertheless unafraid to identify with his country.


He takes great objection to being categorized as British. In his open letter, written in 1983 to the editors of the Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry he declared “my passport’s green.” The 33 stanza letter, albeit witty, apologetic and tactful, leaves the reader no doubt as to where his loyalties lie “British, no, the name’s not right./ Yours truly, Seamus.” This great Irish poet who has been openly skeptical of nationalistic fervour was nevertheless commended by the Nobel Committee (which reportedly harbours a prejudice against politically clamorous writers) for “speaking out as an Irish Catholic about violence in Northern Ireland.” His books Wintering Out and North deal with contemporary violence, terrorism and military repression. They are more reportage than poetry: “... men die at hand. In blasted street and home “The gelignite’s a common sound effect...” The critic Morrison says that Seamus Heaney’s poems on conflict will remain essential reading as long as nations in Europe tear each other apart. This is partly why, “deservedly” he concludes, “Heaney is often called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.”


But the reportage on Ireland still wasn’t Seamus’s best work. He himself was said not to be comfortable with the results. He went on to write work with his deeper instinctual muse. In Seeing Things he turned to quieter themes, domesticity and childhood. His range is wide but the Swedish academy of 18 men and women who chose the Nobel Literature Prize made special mention of his ability to “exalt everyday miracles.” Seamus’ poems on tribal conflict may remain essential reading but his poems which ring with the delight that comes so naturally in children, are literally now a million dollar read.


The winner of this year’s Nobel prize for Literature is unafraid to use his deeper instinctual muse. He reveals himself, makes himself vulnerable, gives of himself and so alleviates the sense of aloneness that we all carry. In his exaltation of everyday miracles he revives our own feeling for them in our lives. So this former Oxford professor, scholar, winner of prestigious accolades, popular, even among British school children, decides in mid-life, to write about tin cans.

“Heaviness of being. And poetry

“Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens.

“Me waiting until I was nearly fifty

“To credit marvels. Like the treeclock of tin cans

“The Tinkers made. So long for the air to brighten

“Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.”

Our own Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, (we can claim you, can we not?) reportedly is a friend of Seamus. I can see why.


In 1993, in royal company, in black tie (he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing those clothes in these parts), amidst caviar and champagne, royal tiaras and ceremony, this “red” St. Lucian/ Trinidadian Nobel Laureate told the world of the re-enactment of Ram Leela in Felicity. It was the afternoon in Felicity when Walcott was “filtering the afternoon with evocations of a lost India.” Then he asked himself “why evocations?” Why not “celebrations where none of these villagers ever really knew it?” (India). Walcott was saying, look it’s here already, we can stop the yearning and start the reveling in this. It is no longer an imitation of a tradition but a thing in itself.


He wrote in his Nobel Lecture titled The Antilles Fragments of Epic Memory: “Break a vase and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments... This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles.”


“Here there are not enough books, one says, no theaters, no museums, simply not enough to do,” but he says “survival” is the visible poetry of the Antilles. So Walcott tells us of his epiphany in Soufriere:

“African children in Sunday frocks come down the ordinary concrete steps into the church, banana leaves hang and glisten, a truck is parked in a yard, and old women totter towards the entrance. Here’s where a real fresco should be painted...one without importance but one with real faith.”


Both Nobel Laureates understand and have a deep faith in their origins but they are not hardened or made blind by rigid convictions or facts. Because ultimately, Walcott says, “the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, inspite of history.” Because while retaining the historical, instinctual memory of our race and ancestors, we are creating a culture “branch by branch, leaf by leaf.”


If Naipaul, described as one of the greatest living writers, had won the Nobel prize (and he has been a likely candidate for years) would he, with lip curling cynicism, include the statement he made to this journalist six years ago that “the politics of a country of 1.5 million people do not interest me.” While Naipaul sneaks around, on his visits home, avoiding the madding crowd, Walcott is spied wandering around Carifesta booths, or drinking a Carib with David Rudder at Moon Over Bourbon Street. Walcott sees the cane cutter, the fishermen “rooted now in the islands life, illiterate in the way leaves are illiterate; they do not read, they are there to be read and if they are properly read they create their own literature.” But Naipaul (who I see is now turning softer - he may yet win the Prize) I suspect ultimately is so drenched in cynicism that he is losing or lost “the capacity and the time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten”. Don’t knock this capacity.  It may bring us shafts of happiness here and there, fear too, because these poets have an uncanny ability to see into the heart of things, a premonition of things to come. And these friends, both great poets, Walcott and Heaney, now both Nobel Laureates, are saying to us that the most important thing in this world may not be the stupidity or ignorance of people, or the squabble over superiority of your race, religion, wealth and yes, even intellect, but an ability to exalt everyday miracles.


As for Seamus Heaney’s winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, his colleague and critic Blake Morrison says, “It couldn’t have happened to a better poet, or a nicer man.”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur