The sub freezing wind blew flurries here and there as a few hundred people made their way into Emory University’s Glenn Memorial Auditorium -the campus church. It was only two weeks ago. My friend and I followed the early arrivers into the building and slid towards the middle of a pew in the center of the room. We were there to see a writer. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, one of the great poets of the twentieth century.
That day I listened to a writer in his twilight years share a selection of his poems to an audience of adoring fans. I expected to hear influential lines about the important people he had met, the political turmoil he had lived through, or an interpretation of his generation’s key issues. After all, this reading served to celebrate his legacy. If he wanted to share his opinions, it was the time.
My expectations couldn’t have been more wrong. Out of the hundreds if not thousands of poems he has written in his life, the twelve or so he chose to read that day were about seemingly simple things: the wind. His neighbor. His friends. His children and grandchildren. Poems about flying kites, and a well in the back of his blind neighbor’s yard. About his friend the blacksmith ringing in the new year, and the shaping of a spade.
One of my great writing mentors once said, “We write in service of the truth.” Since then, I’ve seen what she said taken to the extreme. I’ve seen it become both a mantra and a defense for those writers wanting to persuade others that they are ill informed, challenged, or just wrong. These often take the position, “I know the truth, if you agree you’re my friend. If not, I’ll have nothing to do with you.”
This type of writer seems to be more pronounced today. Since anyone can publish online and have a following, the battle between every extreme, every ideology and political agenda, is more public -and more heated. Each side has a flag in the ground. Each claiming to write for the truth.
As I consider Heaney, and the poems he chose to read that day. They did not take a political side, defend a position, or speak an opinion. On the contrary, they celebrated a much more elemental truth. One shared by the entire audience, as well as generations of people around the world. His poems simultaneously called attention to and celebrated our collective humanness.
It’s easy to forget, especially in our current culture, that we do hold this common ground with each other. That we all live. We all have neighbors and friends. We each experience beauty, tranquility, pain and sorrow. We can relate on these grounds without the slightest idea of each other’s opinions, political leanings, sexual orientation, or social standing. This truth is both fundamental and beautiful and is one that we as writers can spread through our words, if we so choose.
I’m not saying the Heaney’s of our community are gone. Just that there aren’t enough. As I consider my own writing and the reason why I write, it’s my desire to become an agent for this elemental truth and to build up other writers with the same desire.
What this will mean in the future, I cannot say for sure. But what I do know is it begins with elevating story to an art form with the intent to lift a community, and making our poetry be a cause for reflection upon our common ground.
As Heaney walked off the stage to a standing ovation that lasted a couple of minutes, he gave a small grin and a wave. It was like watching an old performer take a bow in front of an adoring audience. And there was only one question my friend and I asked as we made the long drive back to Jacksonville.
Who will be the Heaney of our generation?
Opinion piece by Jared Rypkema