(Published in the Business Standard, September 3, 2013)
The day Seamus Heaney died, a small, astonishing thing happened. Poetry, this secret so many of us readers had hugged to ourselves, the stuff we reached for in the dim watches of the night, that took us through “the dark years” as the writer Teju Cole says, rolled out across Twitter, and for a moment, I found myself in a state of what can only be called awe.
Twitter comes closest to replicating human speech and conversation in text of all of social media, and it has become a strange, often stained and smirched window to the world. Your average Twitter stream sounds exactly like conversation: the flat banalities of abuse competing with casual chat, perhaps a few good links. It gets argumentative on Twitter, and it gets ugly, and sometimes, but only sometimes, it can be funny, sweet, heartwarming. The language we use is like ourselves: flawed, chipped, casual, imperfect.
As we scroll down the timeline across our screens, it keeps us trapped in the illusion of a permanent present. The only moment that is important on Twitter, as with the news cycles these days, is the here and the now; and as arguments rinse and repeat, history and the past are relentlessly shovelled down the page, irrelevant, unimportant, inessential. With roughly 288 million regular users, Twitter might be the first shifting, partial but largescale map that tells us how we speak, and often, the mirror it holds up to humanity is not a flattering one.
Take Tom Wolfe, who has many gifts as a writer, including the ability to take something that already makes you wince and amplify it until you cannot stand it. In Back to Blood, he has a line about americanos trying to dance on the deck of a boat while they answer their smartphones: “…all of them riddled by the abrupt beed beep beeps and alert alert alerts of incoming TEXTS thung TEXTS thung BEAT thung HUMP thung THRUST thung BEAT thung DANCING thung AGAIN thung the DECK thung DECK thung INFLAMED thung LUST thung LUST WHOOP WHOOP! WOO-WOO!”
But even Wolfe, professional mangler, wrangler and exaggerator of language, does not come close to expressing just how banal and how random most of human speech is, on text or on Twitter.
Or was, until that sudden moment when I knew Heaney was gone because his words, strong and living, announced his death, illuminating my timeline and lighting up other corners of Twitter, reminding me of what I am always in danger of forgetting, which is the grace of language.
There he draws smoke with chalk the whole first week,
Then draws the forked stick that they call a Y.
This is writing. A swan’s neck and swan’s back
Make the 2 he can see now as well as say.”
It was like a flood, poetry and Heaney’s lines moving across the screen, a sudden, necessary reminder of what he had believed in and trusted in all his life: that to be human is to pay attention, to everything, to the wars and the Troubles, but also to vanished music and twilit water, and to the smells of ordinariness. I borrow his words without shame, as I have borrowed from poetry all my life, and they bring me to the deep secret of our times, the gulf between the marketplace of writing and the truth of reading.
In the marketplace of writing, there is little place for poetry, except upon the remainder shelves and the discount tables. But when you think of the readers who chant Nazim Hikmet and Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis in times of revolution, the way in which Agha Shahid and Lal Ded’s lines wrap themselves around Kashmir’s history, the instinctive way in which you might reach for Szymborska, or your own favourite poet, in times of need, and when you think of the millions of readers across the world who do the same, then you understand that poetry has never lost its place.
So much has been written about Heaney’s life, his importance as a poet, his poems, what he taught his friends and students. For me, standing at the frontier of writing myself, waiting for the squawk of clearance, Heaney gives me the words with which to describe where I am and what I want from the world. I feel lucky to have lived parallel to his time, my life marked, and shaped, as were the lives of so many of us, by the grand, living flow of his books and poems.
That day of his death, his lines lit up the black lonely screen of the Internet and briefly, his words showed us what language could and might be, how we might talk to one another. How is it that the habit of reading poetry refuses to die, even in this time of screens and texts? Heaney does not answer that directly, but as he writes in The Singer’s House:
“When I came here first you were always singing,
a hint of the clip of the pick
in your winnowing climb and attack.
Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear.”