Seamus Heaney and Why We Write

I’ve been picking up my poetry collections recently and dipping in – something I promised myself I’d do more of this057109024901_sx140_sclzzzzzzz_ year.  They’ve followed me everywhere and I find that there’s a comforting feeling coming back to my old favourites, like visiting old friends you haven’t seen for a while.  A love of poetry is something I had instilled in me from a young age, growing up in a house where poetry books were always available, encouraged always by the wonderful use of language in this written form, and (for better or worse) it has been something that I have always written myself.  This led me down the path of considering why people write.

I find it much easier to explain why I read: stimulation, excitement, transportation to distant worlds, distant lands, acquisition of knowledge, the sound of words, their interplay … the list is endless.  For someone, however, who has written in some form or another all their life, from diaries to blogs, homemade newspapers to cyber-reviews, childhood illustrated books (a wordsmith I may have been from a young age, an illustrator I am not but my Mum appreciated them) to more substantial adult writing, it is much harder to elucidate reasons.  It’s what I do, I never really remember a time when I didn’t and the notion of stopping is inconceivable.  The vast majority of my writing has not been written for an audience – heaven knows, I’d be mortified if some of my teenage diary entries came to light!  I write to think, to reason and to order things in my head.  What happens to these when I’m dead and gone is of minimal importance, it is the act of writing that initiates catharsis not the eventual product.  I blog now, something quite different from anything my thirteen-year-old self could have envisaged as I dutifully kept stubs of cinema tickets and mementoes folded in the pages of that year’s journal.  I suppose it is the first time I’ve really addressed any form of ‘audience’ in a concrete sense and it is a really rewarding experience.  But it is fiction and poetry that I still really love, the one I miss if time has taken me away from my notebooks for too long, and that is harder to explain the motivation for.  For me, this is rarely something I’ve had the opportunity to share, until the advent of this cyber age at least, but still something I need to write.  I guess inside all people who write, there is a little germ of an idea that it would be great to be able to say ‘occupation author’ or ‘poet’ but it is not the prime motivation.  For poetry especially, but other writing too, it is impossible not to write the words.  There’s a kernel of an idea or a combination of words that begs to be written.  However, writing doesn’t always come easy, while sometimes something has to be voiced, writing about things that don’t inspire, writing what you have to do, these are harder tasks and contain none of the pleasure or release, no matter how efficiently accomplished – a reason I considered and dismissed pursuing a journalistic career when I was younger.

One of my favourite poets, Seamus Heaney (whose use of language, I have to admit, I am just a wee bit in love with), examines his own motivations for writing in the ‘bookend’ poems of his collection ‘Death of a Naturalist’.  In ‘Digging’, Heaney situates his profession as a poet in the context of his family ancestry of manual work: where his father and grandfather dug for potatoes in fresh fertile ground, digging deep to find the best soil, planting something that would grow to feed and sustain people, Heaney follows in their footsteps, wielding his pen, digging inside himself.  I particularly like the lines:

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it

From ‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966)

His pen is as much a tool as the spade his father uses, our expectation of what he will find as real as the expectation of bounty when you raise a potato root and hope to see it full of promise.  Inherent in this is a sense of the unknown and the unspoilt, expectant promise that exists at the moment a writer’s pen hovers above the blank page, in this moment anything is possible.

Heaney revisits the introspective on his writing motivation in the final poem of the collection, ‘Personal Helicon’.  This is one of my favourite poems, I love the imagery of the well, the onomatopoeic language and rich descriptives.  What resonates is the concept of the draw of an empty page, of the act of writing, of the essence of peering into the shielded darkness, unsure of what is below.  I will leave you with the final verse, one of the most evocative images of the motivation and compulsion to write that I have come across and ask you to consider how far it applies to you:

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

From ‘Personal Helicon’ by Seamus Heaney in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966)


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