It a time when a writer’s admitted commitment to a “higher purpose” is likely to be criticised as naive or outdated, Nobel prize-winning Irish writer Professor Seamus Heaney continues to believe that expression grounded in truth is powerful.
In his first visit to Africa, Heaney was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature degree by Rhodes University Chancellor Professor Jakes Gerwel in Grahamstown last week.
Perhaps mostly widely recognised for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Heaney has written 11 volumes of poetry and several volumes of critical essays, appeared at numerous literary festivals and been awarded an annual visiting professorship at Harvard and the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994.
Heaney’s poetry and prose writing reflects a profound preoccupation with the responsibilities of creativity, recognising the tension between the artist’s need for freedom of expression and the social pressures felt by the artist as citizen. Heaney has argued, in collections of essays like The Government of the Tongue (1988) and The Place of Writing (1989), that one of the poet’s main tasks is to ensure that beauty survives the destructive threats of tyranny and oppression.
In an interview at Rhodes University last week, Heaney said he had started dreaming about visiting South Africa as a school child — where Cape Town had assumed the image of “a type of Eden” and a “place of sweet airs” for him.
But his disquiet with South Africa’s apartheid policies prevented Heaney from taking up an offer to visit
the country in 1985, when Professor Malvern van Wyk Smith, a respected lecturer and former head of the Rhodes English department, approached him at a Cambridge University conference.
More recently, Dr Wendy Jacobson, Van Wyk Smith’s colleague and friend, wrote to Heaney to request his participation in Van Wyk Smith’s retirement celebrations.
In what Heaney described as a “chorus of praise” for Van Wyk Smith’s “commitment to poetry”, he received subsequent requests to visit South Africa from, among others, his “old friend” Kader Asmal — once Professor of International Law at Dublin’s Trinity College and now South Africa’s Minister of Education.
At Heaney’s poetry lecture and graduation ceremony last week, Van Wyk Smith, who will be retiring at the end of this year, said he had been teaching Heaney’s work for 30 of his 40 years as an academic and described the poet as “one of the greatest living writers writing in English today”.
Van Wyk Smith quoted a passage from Heaney’s Nobel acceptance speech: “[Do I] try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous?” as a demonstration of the poet’s concern with art’s role in society and how it could “deal with awfulness”.
In his address at his graduation ceremony, Heaney quoted Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s response to the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Warsaw: “What is poetry that does not save nations or people? A connivance with official lies. The song of drunkards whose throats are about to be cut.”
Heaney said it was “impossible” for any human being who was faced with similar levels of suffering “not to feel that call to human solidarity”.
In awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, the Swedish Academy of Letters cited Heaney for “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.
Heaney has never steered away from commenting on Irish politics or global human rights injustices. A committed humanitarian and United Nations goodwill ambassador, his writing shows equal compassion for every person affected by violence.
Like South African writers, Heaney said he had often found himself in “the middle of a crossroads where your answerability as a writer to your times and your place is going to cut across your obligations to your art and yourself”.
He warned against writing “headline grabbing” poetry in response to political violence without it being grounded in “true inner sources” and providing the “kind of inner surprise and satisfaction that the true work always provides”.
Commenting on the similarity of Northern Ireland and South Africa as “nations divided”, Heaney said that divisive prejudices could only fall away when nations were run by “forward-seeking institutions” that encouraged the education of their citizens.