More on Heaney
A New Way of Living


No writer has more influenced my use of a single word than Seamus Heaney has.  And the word in question is "so."

Listen to my sermons.  Read their manuscripts.  And, if you are listening/looking for it, you will notice how often I use "so" and how dependent I am upon it for the flow and structure of my work.  I actually have to restrain myself from overusing it.

And this is due to Heaney.  I think when I read what he said about "so," it resonated with my own previous, conversational use of of the word.  Our northeastern Oklahoman use of it seemed very similiar to what he described of his Irish relatives.  Maybe our linguistic connections to the Old World were closer than we realized.

Where does Heaney talk about "so" in the way that deeply influenced me?  In his magnificent translation of Beowulf.  Here is how he translates the famous opening lines:

So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

[Note: I've never, in a sermon, dared the single word sentence "so."] 

Here is his explanation of the translation.  He gets to "so" at the very end, but you need to read what comes before.

It is one thing to find lexical meanings for the words and to have some feel for how the metre might go, but it is quite another thing to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work.  Without some melody sensed or promised, it is simply impossible for a poet to establish the translator's right-of-way into and through a text.  I was therefore lucky to hear this enabling note almost straight away, a familiar local voice, one that had belonged to relatives of my father's, people whom I had once described in a poem as "big voiced Scullions."

I called them "big voiced" because when the mean of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf.  A simple sentence such as "We cut the corn to-day" took on immense dignity when one of them Scullions spoke it.  They had a king of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk.  And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives.  I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon.

Convention renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and--more colloquially--"listen" being some of the solutions offered previously.  But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.  So, "so" it was.

Don't you just love that description--"obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention"?  Who would fail to use a tool like that once discovered?

And, thus, in pretty much every sermon, there comes a point where I utter this two-letter word and know full well that behind my utterance lies the translation work of Seamus Heaney, the idiomatic expressions of his Irish relatives, the majesty and power of the old Anglo-Saxon epic, and the courage and greatness of the stories it tells.


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