Seamus Heaney on President Barack Obama: “A bardic presence in The White House…” (BBC interview, 1.16.10)

The BBC World Service’s Laurence Pollard recently interviewed Ireland’s (and quite possibly the world’s) best known poet, Seamus Heaney. The interview ran on 1.16.2010 and can be listened to online if you go to the BBC World Service website.

It’s a fascinating interview in so many respects, and I have listened to it, already, several times.

Heaney is a very powerful and serious poet and I was interested to hear what he had to say for many reasons, and especially because my own Story-Poem “This should never have happened” –soon to be published, covers a lot of the same ground that Seamus went into –regardless of how different our backgrounds– and I will be writing here about that.

[I should perhaps say here that I know Seamus Heaney slightly; have met him and conversed, quite some time ago, with him a few times –mostly on the subject of translation; and we even had a brief correspondance about a possible Stone Street Press special Handmade Heaney edition, that never quite got off the drawing board. (Should I add “Yet!” here? No, definitely –though my grandmother did instruct me to never say never.)]

BUT IT WAS WHAT HEANEY SAID ABOUT BARACK OBAMA that I want to write about here.

Having discussed with Laurence Pollard about the position of being an Irish Catholic North of Ireland poet who has lived through the intense partisan strife and violence of the North of Ireland, and who has had to steer his way through all the political and cultural minefields –update: the IED-fields– and maintain his intellectual and poetic and personal –and, yes, spiritual– integrity in the face of fiercesome pressures from all sides, from IRA Bombs to Thatcherian Bombast (with additional bloviated bombast from our dear friend The Reverend Ian Paisley) –which he covered with the most fascinating insights into the considerations of a poet– Heaney then brought up the subject of The Place of The Bard, with particular reference to our times. To the business of RIGHT NOW, the need for Poetry RIGHT NOW, and our need to hear RIGHT NOW the poetry of the day.

There is especially at a time of crisis, our need for poetry; our need for a Bard.
9.11 and what came after, is our time of crisis, on top of which has been laid more crises –political, fiscal, environmental, etc., crises– with the urgent sense that we might have seen nothing yet. I do not want to be alarmist; I am not an alarmist; but –am I not correct on this?

Heaney talked about language. About the need for New Language. About the search for a New Language.

Of course, the words will be the same as used in the Old Language: it’s the spirit –The Bardic Spirit , if you like– that is different, that HAS to be different!

And that is the point at which Heaney mentions….Barack Obama!

Barack Obama, according to Seamus Heaney, is a Bardic Presence. He is a writer, a Bardic Presence in The White House, speaking a new language, for the new temper of the times –a new language to do and achieve what needs to be done and achieved, in our nation, and in the world.

To illustrate his point, Heaney compares Barack’s language with the language of George W. Bush –NOT in the way that we at our end of the spectrum have made fun of W’s language fumbling fractures and mumbling malaprops– but in another way.

George Bush’s language was DISCOURTEOUS. He spoke of The Evil Empires! But when Barack Obama said the word “Muslim” it didn’t come out like stupid arrogance or an insult. Heaney’s clear implication here is that Barack’s soul is different, very different .

To make sure that we got, and weighed properly, his use of the word “discourteous”, SH went on to talk about George W. Bush’s ILL-MANNEREDNESS. ( As he went into this I was reminded of that phrase I use from time to time, “Stand-up Comity”. If you look at my Facebook Profile, I give as my Religion, “Stand-Up Comity!” Heaney is talking about the importance of Comity. Comity translates into Hope, into a DESIRE FOR SOMETHING BETTER!!!)

Heaney has another phrase: “Pious Aspiration” and he means it in a positive sense! Barack Obama has –and needs– a pious aspiration. To chart a new course, to forge a new spirit.
(And I can feel –with sadness– how much we, even we who embraced Barack Obama, have departed from that spirit of a year ago; how much in our souls we have taken on the toxic fight that surrounds and envelopes us like a cloud of pollution, unceasingly every day. And I feel this from my friends: a sense ALMOST that we cannot go on –and do all the things we have to do– if we don’t have a way –an ENGAGED way– of renewing our spirit.)

[At this point I wish to explain, and to apologise. I have listened to the Heaney interview –2 or 3 times right through, but am at a disadvantage by not having a printed text in front of me. I took copious notes, but I am uneasy in that the notes are not written in complete sentences, and that I might miss some nuances, and convey something that was not Seamus Heaney’s intention.
And I am also aware of the dangers both of injecting some of my own opinions into this blog-piece, of attributing them to SH, and of the general dangers of “conflation/contagion” .
So –best to listen yourself to the entire interview.]

But –THAT SAID, (and you knew I was going to have to put in at least one THAT SAID– I do feel that I have done a pretty faithful representation of what Seamus Heaney said in this interview.

He went on to talk about Barack’s first book, “Dreams of My Father” which he termed “a writer’s book” (aren’t they all? we say, then we get what SH means.)
He uses the word “inward”. It’s an INWARD book, says SH, a reflective book. Barack talks about his own experience, here and in different parts of the world. Heaney says of Barack The Writer, “he’s earned my trust”. Of course, the comparison with George W. Bush is all the time hanging in the air.

At the end of the interview one –OK, I– is left with the feeling that from a distance, Heaney really has seen everything that is going on. That is THE POET’S JOB . In fact, more that that, one is left with the feeling, that in our world there IS NO DISTANCE, only the distance of denial and distraction and preoccupation that we all use all the time.

[Another thought –utterly conflationary, probably: it struck me that Seamus is also a Nobel Prize winner, and that he had no doubt about why Barack won his prize.

And that he deserved it. ]

Again, do try to catch the interview.
And again, I will be writing some more –much more, I sense, about it and some of the thoughts that arose from it.

But for now I recommend a little –what?– a little prayer, called, what?, State of the Nation’s Soul … of… a Yes-WE-Can rededication to what we all took on just a year ago. It was …not The SuperBowl; it was/is/will be the chance we got to, hopefull STILL HAVE…to seriously change direction.

[After writing this piece I am left with a certain sense of dread that few –if indeed, any– of the people that Barack Obama has gathered around him, actaully GET HIM, in the sense that Heaney (and we here) have been talking about.]

Got to go!


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