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Laura's Word 5 September 2013

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On the death of Seamus Heaney

Laura's Word 5 September 2013

Google turns 15; footballer Gareth Bale signs to Real Madrid for £85 million; one team of neuroscientists grow a mini-brain and another successfully connects two human minds through the Internet; the possibility of a war with Syria teeters ever closer. It’s been a funny old few weeks as the world lurches from excitement to despair and back again. 

Being human in a world of ever-accelerating technological change and hyper-connectedness is a rollercoaster – although ideally rollercoasters involve repeated circuits along sturdy tracks. We may be a pretty ingenious species, harnessing big data to make sense of it all, but on an individual level our thinking processes have a whiff of duct tape and chewing gum about them. Our ability to keep up with the speed at which ‘new’ becomes ‘old’ and to acknowledge and process the sheer tangled volume of information out there is pretty ropey. 

And yet amid the hurly-burly, last week I found myself in a rare islet of stillness. As the news of Seamus Heaney broke on Friday, it triggered memories of high school English classes. Instead of the usual rotation of Reddit, Twitter, the Guardian’s comment threads, Mashable and Facebook that make up my lunchtime reading material, I ended up trawling through some of the Nobel Laureate’s work. Death of a Naturalist. Mid-Term Break. The Tollund Man.

I was about 15 or so when I studied Seamus Heaney and so my desire to re-visit some of his poems upon hearing the news was probably motivated more by nostalgia than literary solemnity. In fact, I’m not really all that good with poetry. Novels, essays, short stories, graphic novels: I’m your gal. But to appreciate a good poem requires patience. I have yet to be endorsed for patience on LinkedIn. I’m a chronic skim-reader and, worse, digital multi-tasker. And so on Friday I had to really, forcibly, slow myself down and focus. 

And it was worth it. Rich and light, vivid and sparse, carefully crafted yet never contrived – taking in Heaney’s words is a lesson in both reading and writing. Deadlines and technology can conspire to turn writers into word-churners – in advertising, in journalism – and nobody wants to appear too precious, but it’s healthy and good to take a little time to remember that language can be beautiful as well as functional. 

Rather than floating away on a cloud of arty-farty nonsense, I found the experience of pausing to read some of my favourite Heaney poems oddly grounding. Even when trying to make sense of contemporary issues, there is a certain timelessness to his work – due, in part, to the influence of nature, history and pre-history in many of his poems. As humanity speeds onwards and we lose ourselves to ‘the cloud’, art, poetry and music may be more important than ever.  It’s easy to be swept up in the minute-to-minute adventure of modern life, but the arts can help give us some perspective. As Heaney reportedly texted his wife before he died “ Noli timere”. Don’t be afraid. 

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Genres: People

LBB Editorial, Wed, 04 Sep 2013 16:26:04 GMT