On the passing of giants

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There’s been a meme doing the rounds of social media this week. Under the aegis of “Make music not war” it states: “When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied “Then what are we fighting for?””. For any human being, it’s a very valid question: What are we fighting for? And what is worth fighting for in life?

There were a number of news items that caught my attention this week: the vote in Parliament on “intervening” in Syria; the anniversary of the March on Washington; and the passing of the great Irish Poet Laureate Seamus Heaney. Clearly, by the vote in Parliament this week, the British public no longer sees oil and profiteering as worth fighting for. Despite the best efforts of the PM and interested parties to dress it up as humanitarian intervention, there is, in an era weary of and hardened by political mendacity and spin, little public appetite for war or policing the world. It was one of the greatest moments of Parliament in recent years. In itself, what it did show was a public yearning for a more evolved response to complex issues; and where the public leads, politicians will be forced to follow.

It was not always thus of course, which made me think about the connection between Martin Luther King and Seamus Heaney. There are obvious connections, of course; both Nobel prize winners, both civil rights and peace activists. But there is also a deeper connection that demonstrates the poetry that there can be in politics, and the politics in poetry. While my heart never fails to soar at the words “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last”, the “I have a dream” speech, though great, is not my personal favourite. For that, I look to “Why I am opposed to the war in Vietnam”. For those of you not familiar with it, MLK talks about the triple evils of “racism, militarism and economic exploitation” and directly challenges the American self-appointed divine right to act as a policeman of the world. It is poetic in its passion, its cadences of delivery that were MLK’s unique oratorical genius, and underpinning that was the absolute dedication to fighting for what was beautiful in life, and ultimately truthful and meaningful to the human experience.

Similarly, Heaney had a similar gift of seeing the epic and the beautiful in the most ordinary of human experience. Since I heard the news of his passing yesterday, it has surprised me at how bereft I have felt. On another level, it shouldn’t surprise me at all. The oldest vernacular poetry in Europe is represented in Ireland, and poets have always inhabited a special place in the Irish psyche. Heaney was always in my consciousness growing up, whether it was seeing him taking part in the anti-apartheid demonstrations in 1980s Ireland, or speaking about the North on television, or reading the odd bit of his poetry in books at home. There was something about the way he wrote that to me was both simple and profound, earthy but elegant, fanciful yet ultimately rooted in a searing truthfulness. In “Digging” he talks about the pen being the gun in his hand, and in the tradition of his forefathers digging for the “good turf” that he will dig with his pen. It’s a determined promise couched in a gentle threat, respectful of tradition and yet not bound by it.

Of course he had his detractors; anyone who threatens the status quo, be it the political establishment or accepted norms of thought, will. Maybe every generation feels like this, but it seems that in the last 15 years that we have lived through an era of exceptional cynicism, where mediocrity has been elevated to an art-form. Our politicians spin us “change” that we bereave, rather than believe in; and many artists prefer to remain silent and uphold the status quo because of the impact they fear it may have on their careers. Only the most brave and dedicated to the truth have the courage of their convictions; and as we’ve seen recently in the cases of Manning and Snowden, that bravery may end in conviction.

Even for a perennial optimist, sometimes the cynicism in the world can seem overwhelming. The rise of liar, the wolf in sheeps’ clothing, the charlatan, those who know the  price of everything but the value of nothing, the gombeen men, the profiteer, the cynics who exploit others’ lust for hope and change with their eye on the prize and their finger on the trigger, the pygmies of politics – their time is drawing to a close. As I was reminded by the 109-year Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer in a one-minute video on YouTube: “I know about the bad things in life, but I look to the good things”.

To go back to Churchill’s question and rephrase it slightly: “What is worth fighting for?” To me: truth; beauty; peace – in a peaceful way. The gentle, noble giants like MLK and Heaney that rise in the public’s consciousness do so because they move us to see the beauty in truth, and enflame a desire to follow where their giant footsteps precede. When a giant passes it is fitting that we mourn their passing; and hope for another Colossus of the heart to arise to fill the vacuum that is left.

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One response »

  1. Totally agree with you Gráinne – I’ve been profoundly depressed at what is happening in the Arts in this country. Just watched Heaney’s funeral on TV – ended up whisking off a letter off to the I Times about the arts

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