Expressing Humanity During 'The Troubles:' The Poetry of Seamus Heaney

To English professor Michael Valdez Moses, the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney is the most important poet in the English language in the last century.

"He is one of the few poets able to combine political and personal poetry in very striking and unique ways," Moses said. "He literally allows us to see the world differently."

Joined by seven others, including two students and President Richard Brodhead, Moses and his colleagues read 16 poems by the Nobel laureate, who died on Aug. 30.  Before more than 100 people in Goodson Chapel in the Divinity School, the readers shared their reasons for selecting their respective poems and why Heaney was important to them. The event concluded with a moving recording of Heaney himself reading "Funeral Rites."  (See below)

Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland in 1939, just after Irish independence.  Many of his major works of poetry were written during "The Troubles," the name given the conflict that raged between Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to 1998. After earning acclaim in Ireland and Great Britain, Heaney became internationally prominent for his powerful imagery and themes that included family, violence and identity. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.

Although Heaney was never explicitly political in his poetry, the traumatic nature of this sectarian violence informed much of his work, said Brodhead, who read "VII" from "Station Island" and "Audenesque."

"Ireland has been characterized by a tradition of sectarian violence," Brodhead said. "Not armies against armies, but between people who live together by day and (had) the violence suddenly intrude on their domestic lives. His poems are an uncanny evocation of this intimate violence."

Duke Human Rights Center director Robin Kirk, who read "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing," said Heaney’s relative accessibility and intimate understanding of the Troubles have made his work the "essential field guide" for those traveling to Northern Ireland today. As coordinator of the DukeEngage Northern Ireland Program, Kirk has also made "Whatever You Say" required reading for all participants.

"His poems for me are a beautiful but a powerful reminder to [human rights activists] that you’ve got to keep at it," Kirk said. "He’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the region."

For Moses, who also taught a class on Heaney last spring, the late poet's most remarkable talent was his ability to appeal to all levels and types of readers.