Invented Language: Seamus Heaney and Cinema

I was in Belfast when I read the news that Seamus Heaney, our national poet, singer of hope, and a spiritual father, had died. It’s hard to think of a more significant, and certainly there was no more widely loved, cultural figure in my homeland of northern Ireland than Heaney.

If by invention we mean the process of taking two or more things that had not previously been mingled, and leading them into alchemy, then Seamus Heaney didn’t just speak my language, he invented it. He took the raw material of the Ulster culture, the landscape, the sorrow amidst political struggle, and fashioned a lexicon of desire: to be heard, to make sense of, to wonder why, to define boundaries and to commit to a life of service to the unique vocation to which each of us is invited.

Cinema is poetry, not prose, so there is no contradiction about invoking Heaney in an article about the movies. Indeed, I wish his voice had been put to direct use in film criticism; I would have loved to read his thoughts on what Norman Mailer called the ‘spooky art’ (so called for the resemblance of the recorded human image to memories of the dead).

But poems we have, and they will be read forever – I learned about mortality from his ‘Mid-Term Break’, of the story of his wee brother’s death at four years old; I was comforted by the melancholic prescience of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ as applied to the secrecy ironically acknowledged by everyone in my country’s civil conflict.

I received an icon through which to interpret the very world in ‘The Skylight‘. ‘The Skylight’ is the best poem I’ve read about cinema that isn’t about cinema: Heaney writes about his reluctance the time his wife arranged for a hole to be cut in their roof to let the light in. He declares himself to be grateful once the old ceiling was opened up, moving from skepticism about the project to comparing the experience to nothing less than witnessing a miracle of healing from paralysis.

His work does that to readers, of course; and his death has stirred up for me the poetics of movies that leave me feeling the same way.

So as a tribute to this master of invention, the spiritual binder of my nation’s wounds, a Nobel laureate who once responded to a request for an interview about religion by saying he didn’t feel he had much to say about it, but provided what he called a ‘found poem’ instead, whose riches mined a deeper seam than journalistic interrogation would uncover, this ordinary man from Bellaghy, here, some found moments from the poetics of cinema.

The teenage upstart in Andrei Rublev breaks down, having discovered that his arrogance about his own abilities may have been factually correct, his heart cannot yet contain what it means to be a leader. But he at least now knows how to ask for help.

The prince bangs his crown against his prison wall, while the surrounding peasants hear only music, in ‘Basquiat’s dream of what it means to be an artist.

A film crew becomes a community becomes a family becomes a circus becomes a heavenly dance troupe as Fellini makes a movie out of the struggle to make a movie, in 8 1/2.

In Runaway Train, Jon Voigt giving the second best performance and maybe the best speech in American movies, explaining to Eric Roberts why dignity is found in doing things that you can respect.

A blown out match becomes an astonishing sunrise; a father sits on the porch all night long to protect a man from a racist mob; a grandmother sits on her own porch, for the same duration, to protect children from a preaching monster; a man kisses a woman in a hotel room, and a camera encircles them as if they are themselves the very eye of a tornado; human consciousness and the possibility of compassion is born when a dinosaur withholds violence from another; a spaceship communicates transcendently benign intent by playing music to scientists; an old man becomes an interstellar baby, a planet-sized child, the future of humanity.

Early in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (itself imbued with more than a touch of Heaney), the mother’s narration muses that, “Grace doesn’t try to please itself…[but] nature finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.” Amidst the acclamations of Seamus Heaney’s astonishing art and facility for expanding the possibilities of language, there have been unanimous evocations of his personal generosity and kindness. He was the antithesis of cynicism, knowing that telling the truth does not have to mean hurting the people: it is not the task of the artist to find reasons to be unhappy.

Movies taught me about death, and about sex, and about guilt, and about love. At their best, movies teach me that I am not alone, that there is nothing I have experienced or can fear that someone else has not already been through. The poetics of movie experience are, it seems to me after nearly forty years of watching, indivisible from my sense of identity, memory, history and hope.

Heaney, writing of the miracle of political reconciliation that has begun in my hometown, famously defined a moment when ‘hope and history rhyme’. The image is at once ineffable and absolutely practical; and it comes from the same pen that insists that ‘the end of art is peace’.

‘The best music is the music of what happens’, also – one might say that Seamus Heaney had little time for the uselessness of ‘should’. What is is what matters – and what you do with it. The teacher Edwin Friedman suggested that the purpose of all leadership is to help your audience become emotionally mature – not to force feed platitudes or even wisdom but to speak in such a way that it creates the conditions whereby readers, listeners, followers will capture a vision for themselves of what it means to be human, and then start living it.

As I think about how we have loved and lost Seamus Heaney, I am grateful for the consolations of cinema, for they comfort me. I am more grateful still that his work, and the witness of his life, and the highest cinema, make me want to become more human.

Gareth Higgins is a writer and activist from Northern Ireland. He writes regularly on his own blog, God Is Not Elsewhere, co-hosts the award-winning movie podcast, The Film Talk, and is the Executive Director of The Wild Goose Festival.