A Return to Language

My friend and collaborator Seamus Heaney was buried two months ago. A great Irish vessel was laid to rest, emptied of it's poetry. The Irish people lost their beloved Nobel Prize-winning bard and the world was robbed of one of it's greatest practitioners of language. It seemed particularly cruel to me that we would lose a poetic giant in a time when the need for a return to language seems to be vital to the future of humanity.

My first work in collaboration with Seamus Heaney was when I composed an oratorio called Anything Can Happen based on three of his poems. I approached Seamus with the idea that I would set his poem, Anything Can Happen, after receiving a commission from the choir at Grinnell College in Iowa. He told me that he would be interested to see what I did with the poem since he couldn't really see it being set to music. Since I didn't want to undertake a setting that the poet was not enthusiastic about, I asked him to think more about it and share his thoughts with me.

When we next spoke, a very inspired Seamus came up with the idea that, since the commission was coming from Grinnell, I should consider setting his poem, In Iowa, followed by another poem, Höfn, and then finally follow it up with Anything Can Happen. His idea was that this would contextualize Anything Can Happen. "In Iowa and Höfn", he wrote to me, "would provide a sort of premonition" that would allow Anything Can Happen to represent "a culmination of the catastrophe; the omen fulfilled, as it were". Inspired by the poet's grand vision, I set to work on this oratorio. It would turn out to be one of my most unrelentingly dark pieces of music.

While it's tempting to apply catchwords to the different poems, like suggesting that Höfn is about global warming or that Anything Can Happen is about the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the truth is that each of Seamus' poems is about those things and so much more. They contain the entire sweep of history within them.

In Iowa is a sonnet that allowed me to start with a storm. The scene is bleak in Iowa, among the Mennonites, in a "slathering blizzard". The poem encompasses the phonology of nature and moves on to the downright biblical. Höfn, about that majestic glacier melting, allowed us to add a natural dimension to the crises of the three poems. Finally Anything Can Happen, a loose translation of a Horace Ode embraces the thrust of history. For me, Anything Can Happen has parallels to the apocalyptic poems of Yeats. It almost reads as Seamus Heaney's Second Coming. I thought of this as I was setting it.

So it was somehow appropriate that my last collaboration with Seamus came with a new edition of his poem Audenesque which I set to music together with Auden's In Memory of W.B. Yeats. Seamus' poem was written in response to the death of his friend Joseph Brodsky on January 28th 1996. Yeats died on January 28th 1939, a date that Seamus describes as "double-crossed and death marched". Using the "constrained quatrains" of the final part of Auden's elegy, Seamus constructed a virtuosic and lovingly humorous tribute to his friend.

When Auden wrote his tribute to Yeats, he couldn't have guessed that it would inspire Brodsky to compose his Verses on the Death of T. S. Elliot or Heaney to compose Audenesque. In the end, the link between the poets writing to and for each other is irresistibly beautiful. Even though both Auden and Heaney acknowledge that "Worshiped language can't undo/ Damage time has done to you" and that words alone "bite the dust" in the face of death, Heaney delightfully and, in the last surprising twist of Audenesque, asks us to "see Gilgamesh" because dust cakes "feed the dead/ So be their guest/ Do again what Auden said/ Good poets do/ Bite, break their bread".

This is poetry giving us a means to reach beyond the daily present and touch something timeless and eternal. A lot of people across the world today, especially young people, are desperate for meaning. It seems to me that a return to language is the first step in solving some of the problems of human communication and understanding that are manifesting themselves in conflicts from the Middle East to U.S. Congressmen and Senators unable to talk to one another. I've always been a huge proponent for the memorization of poetry and I value the ability of a person to recite poetry, as the beautiful expression has it, by heart.

There is a need to use and value language more carefully and thoughtfully. There is a need to listen to and admire thoughtful language as part of our day-to-day lives. Our highest forms of linguistic expression are a defining element of our humanity and are a key to communicating with and understanding one another. I will miss Seamus Heaney, a poet who was taken from us too soon, but I will honor his legacy through an appeal that we return to language and return to our poets.