August 31, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
I was surprised this week how much I was affected by the death of Seamus Heaney. The many tributes I saw and heard seemed to make a bigger impact than his actual passing. It was clear that wordsmiths are still highly valued or, in Heaney’s case, revered. That is so encouraging.
We sometimes see dystopian visions of the future, such as that in the Terminator films where the machines have taken over. Humanity in that world has become a means to their ends. We could so easily become a cog in the machine and I sometimes feel that it is only the arts that stop us becoming so. We have created economic and technological systems to serve our ends so that we can enjoy more of what we find truly valuable. But our creation has taken on a life of its own and now there is a serious threat that, instead of serving us, we end up serving it. That is where the arts, having intrinsic value to us, are so crucial. If we ever give them up, it is game over for the human race.
The words are all there in the dictionary for anyone to use. None of them are hidden. Yet poets are able to put them together in surprising and delighting new sequences. It sounds a simple task. But only some among us are able to create beauty from words and use them to invoke cherished and intimate thoughts within any reader. The reaction to Heaney’s death shows that this otherwise useless task is nevertheless one of the most valued. Science, engineering and medicine will always be needed: but it is the great artists who are the pinnacle of humanity’s civilisation.
One of Heaney’s most famous poems is Digging (follow the link to read). His father dug the earth but he can only dig with his pen. I too hold a pen. My father and grandfather were factory workers. And though we were so different, in my ways I try to be like them. Heaney’s poem speaks to a universal theme that transcends the contingencies of his situation. All can read it with profit, which is the mark of poetic genius.