THE IRISH POET and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney once described a good poem as a “paradigm of good politics, a site of energy and tension and possibility — a truth telling arena but not a killing field.” When Heaney was becoming famous as a poet there were critics who expressed disappointment that he hadn’t fulfilled his “obligation” to write poetry that “took sides” over the conflict in Northern Ireland where he grew up.
Talented and politically astute, Heaney felt that the “subtleties and tolerances” were what his poetry demanded and what his community needed. It was that nuance and openness, which ultimately became part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, an arrangement that no one — and everyone — wanted. The final language of the peace document urged people to identify and be accepted as “Irish or British, or both,” an invitation to let go of sectarianism’s binary comforts.
In his 1995 Nobel acceptance speech Heaney describes the long period when his awareness of the pervasive brutality at home and throughout the world left him “bowed to the desk like some monk,” without faith that his writing could make a social impact.
Nonetheless, if poetry has never stopped a tank, as he conceded, Heaney retained a belief that poetic stories could bear values into the world that were critical. Poetry, he wrote, could concentrate our attention at a space between the difficult reality of the world we inhabit and our more honorable desires. Like the Good Friday agreement, poems could carry us to places we hadn’t expected to go, slippages in language prefiguring possible movements in society.
Some of Heaney’s most powerful poems recognize the life-sustaining virtues of everyday commitment. In his poem “Keeping Going,” he writes about his brother Hugh who stayed in Northern Ireland to run the family farm instead of — as Heaney did — leaving Northern Ireland for the tranquility of County Wicklow near Dublin. Hugh stays on “where it happens,” tending to the cows, working the tractor, and being decent to his neighbors while surrounded by the life-waste of the Troubles.
According to Helen Vendler, one of Heaney’s most thoughtful critics, in “Keeping Going” Heaney is praising the qualities of “emotional stamina” and devotion, where a stoic response to a difficult environment becomes a form of heroic endurance. It is important to keep “ordinary life” going, joined to solid practices of daily work and the possibilities of mutual recognition across the narrow ground of political and religious conflict.
I have been visiting the Wilshire Grand construction site for two years, filming and talking to the workers who are doing the building. While the work is difficult and often dirty, what is striking is the absence of complaint from the workingmen and workingwomen I have interviewed there. Whining about the burdens of their work or constantly pointing to the toll that the work takes on their bodies is not something they are prone to do. Complaining seems to go against the ethos of their craft, or might be interpreted as an oblique indication of not being able to meet your obligations to your workmates.
Recently I took Heaney’s book of poems The Spirit Level to the construction site because I thought the workers there might relate to the poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” a poem Heaney mentioned in his Nobel lecture. St. Kevin, as the fable goes, is inside his narrow monastic cell with an arm — palm turned up — stretched out the window. A bird lands in his hand and lays its eggs, obliging Kevin — who embraces his obligation to carry life forward — to hold his arm out until the baby birds are hatched and flown.
I asked the workers to read the poem, at first silently and then aloud. There were a few strange looks from other construction workers who walked by, but others gathered around to listen. To a person — the plumbers, ironworkers, electricians, cement masons, and sheet metal workers saw a bit of St. Kevin in themselves.
Ironworker Brandon Trujillo related the hatching of eggs to the transition from apprenticeship to journeyman in his field, a kind of growing into workplace maturity. Electrician Amber Carter recognized the obligation to carry on, grounded in the necessities of labor but merged with the rhythms of work. For electrician Tim McArdle, the poem quickened his own aspiration — the glimpsed desire of a more selfless stance toward those around him.
Heaney regarded the act of writing as a moment of “unexpected reward,” a form of grace that provided the energy to proceed. And in an essay on W. B. Yeats, Heaney praises him for insisting that writing is a form of labor, not just inspiration but perseverance, for showing that the “revision and slog-work are what you may have to undergo if you seek the satisfaction of finish.”
When Heaney looked up from his monkish desk — rather like St. Kevin — he began to direct his imagination away from the murderous, thus creating artistic space for the marvelous. Reading a poem to a construction site offers workers a similar opportunity to “look up” momentarily from their labor. As they were reading the poem and later talking about it, they expressed a sense of joy in doing so — the strangeness of it giving them new angles for understanding what they do every day.
Reading in the workplace has an honorable but mostly unknown history. American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers writes in his autobiography Seventy Years of Life and Labor of how he and his fellow cigar rollers always had one roller read to them while they were working. The others set aside enough cigars to take care of the daily wages of the reader. The readings drawn from literature, political theory, theater, and history were an “entrance into a wider world” for Gompers and his fellow workers.
When managers and time management “experts” eventually took over the workplaces, often after violent struggles, reading at work would likely get a worker fired.
There is no sense romanticizing the work construction workers do. Most understand that they are sacrificing their bodies for their families — for themselves — to pay the bills. They don’t make a big deal out of it. Stoicism, as Vendler suggests, is by definition un-dramatic, accepting the limitations of the choices you have made.
The workers I have met don’t see themselves as heroic. They are extremely proud however, of their contribution to their communities and thankful to their union for helping provide a decent livelihood. Reading “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” reminded them, they said in various ways, that they are alive, resourceful, and significant.
Kelly Candaele is producing a documentary film on the building of the Wilshire Grand Project. www.headshandshearts.org His essays have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and other publications. He was a union organizer for 15 years.