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Posted 20 June 2011

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Text of the introductory address delivered by Professor Declan Kiberd, UCD School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin on 16 June 2011, on the occasion of the presentation of the Ulysses Medal to Seamus Heaney

If poetry really is news that stays news, then the events of our lives, both great and small, often seem incomplete without Seamus Heaney’s exploration of them.  It would be hard for any reader to say just how much of our imaginations he has invented, for he has not only recorded ideas and feelings --- he has created them.  He has chronicled by now all the ages of a life, winning new readers in each emerging generation, because his words have the force of revelation, of explanation without simplification.  Sardonic yet lyrical, his work offers one of the fullest records of what it has been like to live through the past seven decades.  His lines, filled with the energy of a powerful reticence, express but never claim to solve the human mystery.

Like Homer and Joyce, he is now celebrated as a writer of global significance, because he has so faithfully rendered the odysseys of ordinary people.  He is honoured today by UCD’s highest award, the medal of Ulysses, that intrepid wanderer who survived all challenges by imagination, guile and a beautiful tact.  As with The Odyssey, Heaney’s collected work is not just the story of a journey --- in his case from Derry to California, from Wicklow to Boston, from Oxford to Japan --- but also the journey of a story --- the tale of a conscientious objector against warmaking who chose instead the deeper challenge of entering the depths of his own self.

Joyce used The Odyssey as a mythic model against which to measure the dignified and absurd mundanities of modern life. So did the founders of our national theatre who tried to combine an epic poetry of speech with humdrum, everyday facts.  One of them said that what is profoundest in art is found whenever the dreamer is reaching out to reality --- seeking to carry the lessons of myth into a desacralised, disenchanted world.  That is the method pursued with love and discipline by Heaney, as he takes the ancient legends of Sophocles, Homer, the Sweeney poet or Dante and x-rays them for our present purposes.  If all epic narratives contain a visit to Glasnevin or a descent into the underworld, as a way of reconnecting with our lost, rejected selves, then from his early bog poems to the London underground lyrics of District and Circle, Heaney has done just that.  Over a hundred generations separate him and us from Homer, but he has established the links backward and forward in that human chain, achieving a radical originality by going right back to origins.

Joyce and Heaney are sometimes said to use ancient mythic models as a way of controlling and coming to terms with the anarchy of contemporary life.  But both writers have understood that the ancients themselves were grappling with the same problems ---- Ulysses, Sweeney, Dante all travelled beyond the limits of a received knowledge, whose paradigms were shattered by their discoveries.  Each found that myth must make way for a more real account of the world, but that this had its dangers: the very death of ritual might lead to further rituals of death.  The troubles in the North are but one recent instance.

None of this, however, explains the immense popularity of individual poems, whether they deal with peeling potatoes, flying kites, playing with children, loving a wife, assisting at a death bed.  Many poems deal with the kindred arts of weaving, baking, thatching or ploughing, which have for many urbanised people the appeal of a world that we have lost.  But there is something even deeper going on.  Over twenty years ago, a critic complained that Heaney’s poems lacked a coherent vision or quotable philosophy.  This produced a striking and tender letter in The Irish Times from a woman recalling that she had awakened her husband one Saturday morning to read aloud to him a poem of Heaney’s just published in that morning’s newspaper.  News that stays news indeed, as reported by one of the finest thinkers and makers of our time.

Most of his readers, from presidents to private citizens, have charted their emotional and intellectual lives with quotations from his poems, plays and essays.  Heaney is, of course, the best reader or reacaire of his own poems;  and those who take up a volume after hearing him read from it experience that voice --- intimate yet wry, stately yet chatty --- all over again.

It’s said that an artist writes for the youth of today, the critics of tomorrow and the schoolmasters of ever after.  Yet Heaney has collapsed all these constituencies into one.  In doing as much, he has made the work of many other great Irish poets even more audible in the ears of the wide world.  He and his wife Marie have been shown in their kindliness, dignity and democratic intelligence what James Joyce and Nora Barnacle have taught us too --- that Ireland can always be a test-case for the modern world.

Praehonorabilis Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui recipiatur insigne ulixis; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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Seamus Heaney