Tuesday, September 03, 2013


Seamus Heaney was laid to rest yesterday. His passing was a big thing here; almost the whole front page of the Irish Times. With Maeve Binchy, also recently departed, he was the most loved of Irish writers, and for much the same reason; both were by all accounts lovable persons.

I can't say that I am a great fan of Heaney's poetry, although it is clear that he caught in his words something peaty and profound of the Irish soul. His verse is rooted in the soil, watered with Irish tears, warmed by the rural hearth.

What I most admire of Heaney's is his scholarly prose, on poets and poetry, as exemplified by the collection of essays Finders Keepers. These essays are, he says in the Preface, "testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for."

Discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for: I love that phrase. It captures, I think, something of the difference between poetry and science.

Science is the discovery of the looked for. Oh, it is true enough that many discoveries in science have been serendipitous, stumbled upon, unanticipated. But by and large the motivation for doing science is the anticipation of discovery. Scientists have an agenda. They write proposals with objectives. They are looking for a cure for cancer, controlled fusion, the Higgs boson. And they are not, generally, custodians of what they find. Their discoveries by their very nature are woven into a web of knowledge that stands by itself. No one needs to curate penicillin, or electrons, or E=mc2.

Poets walk through the world awake and wary, but without a plan. They are taken by surprise. They stumble onto significance. They have no idea what they are looking for, but they are uniquely equipped to find it. And when they find it, they must look after it, fan it alive in the glowing embers of language. A poem by Seamus Heaney will give testimony to what he found in the world only as long as we value the poem enough to keep it in our hearts and minds.