Seamus Heaney, Nobel poet, dead at 74

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Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who died today, was unmistakably Irish.

And in the pantheon of Irish literature, the Northern Ireland native was unquestionably a prominent member.

"If you mention major figures, you'll mention William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney," said Pennsylvania's former state poet, Samuel Hazo.

Although Mr. Heaney wrote often about the strife and violence in his country, his words carried meaning far beyond the borders of Ireland.

And at least three times during his life, he spoke those words here in Pittsburgh, said Mr. Hazo, who founded the International Poetry Forum, which brought hundreds of writers, including Mr. Heaney, to Pittsburgh.

"He was not just a poet who dealt in ethnic matters," Mr. Hazo said. "He was as Irish as you can imagine, but he went beyond ethnicity into the kind of human and political issues that every human being can understand."

As an example, Mr. Hazo cited an elegy Mr. Heaney wrote to his mother, in which he remembered sitting next to her as they peeled potatoes, writing that they were "Never closer the whole rest of our lives."

"A line like that stays with you," Mr. Hazo said, recalling it today.

Mr. Heaney, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, died in a Dublin hospital at the age of 74.

His most quoted lines came from "The Cure at Troy," a 1991 adaptation of a Greek play by Sophocles set in the Trojan War.

His version, rooted in a Northern Ireland that he hoped could reach "the far side of revenge," sought to draw a line under a conflict that featured Irish Republican Army hunger strikes and the IRA killing of hundreds of police officers.

"A hunger-striker's father

stands in the graveyard dumb.

The police widow in veils

faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope

on this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

the longed for tidal wave

of justice can rise up,

and hope and history rhyme."

Scores of world leaders have borrowed those lines for their peacemaking proclamations.

Mr. Heaney was an Irishman, but also a globe-trotting poet, and traveled around the world accepting offers to speak. He came to Pittsburgh in 1991 to deliver the keynote address for the International Poetry Forum's 25th anniversary, and he last visited the city in 2004, when he spoke at what is now Carlow University in an International Poetry Forum program.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2004 that Mr. Heaney spoke to a crowded auditorium about the literature of the British Isles and about the evolution of the English language. He read some of his poetry, including from one of his most well-known works, "Digging."

"Between my finger and my thumb,

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it."

Associated Press contributed. Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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