The world feels heavier somehow today with the passing of Seamus Heaney. In times like these when there are rumblings of bombings and desolation, one feels blessed to have known a poet who knew all about troubles, political and social, but also who dug into the personal in unearthing the human condition.
He wasn’t that different to RS Thomas in his thinking and principles and yet he was the epitome of serenity, of humility and grace. I last heard him speak in Boston earlier this year with the other Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. He seemed quieter and I sensed that he had great empathy towards the person whose job it was to hold a conversation with them both. She seemed so nervous that I sensed that Seamus too felt for her as he tried to put her at ease. He was that kind of man.
The poetry will live on of course. I believe it might have been Leslie Norris who said that Dylan Thomas gave us a country in which it was lovely to be a child, RS Thomas a country in which is was necessary to be a man. Seamus was to shine light on both complexities: that of being a child, lovely and harsh, and as a man, his poetry as he approached old age was full of grace.
I only met him on one occasion and we talked over a literary lunch about a few Scottish writers who had died some time earlier. I mentioned having read a wonderful poem, a tribute to them but wasn’t sure who wrote it. He said nothing. I realised years later that he indeed was the author but he never breathed a word or made me look small. Such was the magnitude of the man. The poetry will answer for itself.
My first contact with Seamus Heaney was forty years ago. He wrote a letter from ‘the south’ of Ireland to me in Portstewart, Co Derry asking if he could publish some poems of mine in an anthology called Soundings which he was preparing for publication by Blackstaff Press. I was over the moon and readily agreed. Seamus was a well established figure by the early seventies. He had already published two volumes in the sixties which established his reputation followed by the (at times) overlooked volume (and one of my favourites) Wintering Out (1972), North ( 1975) and Fieldwork (1979). Soundings duly appeared in 1974 and I was as pleased as punch to see my poems included.
In those days there wasn’t much of a fanfare surrounding publication. Books appeared and were reviewed and that was the end of it. I can’t recall any ‘launch’ of the anthology, or readings. I wasn’t part of the Queen’s University axis of poetry and had, in any case, headed west to Galway, in the west of Ireland, further away again from the blossoming generation of poets from the north of which Seamus was then the undisputed leading light. And I was shy of forcing any contact with him or indeed with any other of the rising stars. But a few years later, I was introduced to Seamus by the playwright, Thomas Kilroy, a mutual friend, and the occasion – a few pints in the famous Brazen Head pub in Dublin – was inflected with the recent publication of my first book of poems, Sheltering Places, in 1978.
I can’t recall what Seamus said, to be honest. I’m sure it would have been encouraging even though the book was stunned by the Troubles and bore the brunt of that shock. Though now that I think about it he did remark about the west of Ireland poems and the landscapes to which I’d become imaginatively drawn.
From the late ’70s and early 80s our paths crossed occasionally – at the increasingly more plentiful readings, launches of books, at the John Hewitt Summer School in the Glens of Antrim in the 1990s, and the odd card sent back and forth, with responses to my reviews of his books and others. When my family and I moved to Dublin from Galway we saw a bit more of each other, particularly after I took over as academic director of the Irish Studies Summer School at Trinity College. Seamus was the star-turn, having been a loyal supporter to founding directors, Seona Mac Reamoinn and the literary historian and scholar, Terence Brown. Seamus was also the mainstay of ‘ W B Yeats: The Last Inheritor’, a documentary I wrote and presented in Chris Spurr’s millennium production for BBC where we sat in Yeats’ old Sandymount home talking poetry well after the mic had been switched off.
Seamus turned up unexpectedly when I was elected Fellow of Trinity College and I can still see his beaming smile as he approached across Front Square the group of new Fellows, making the slightly formal, stilted occasion one of mirth and good feeling. And that was the way of him.
Stylishly capable of adapting to changing times, he was wonderfully adept and gifted in making you feel comfortable; that that book was an achievement, this honour, or that a singular distinction while he had of course received, in both his writing life and academic career, innumerable international awards, prizes, honorary degrees, culminating in the highest praise for a poet – the Nobel laureateship in 1995. It was always a matter of praise, not comparison.
Seamus responded to queries with advice, succinct, never ponderous and he took genuine pleasure in the success of others. As so many tributes have recorded he was generous with his time almost to a fault. He supported a literary culture not only in Ireland but globally like Atlas. And his work as a poet, translator, critic and anthologist – not to mention broadcaster and reviewer – is second to none. It is very hard to think of all these things without him. His death has taken me aback; it feels like a very deep personal loss as much as distress at losing a friend; a member of one’s family, a revered colleague.
Even though some of that shy awkward twenty-something year old remained part of my sense of being in his company, there was a graciousness, devilment and sympathy at his core that understood. It was something to do with the poetry business, but it was also something to do with how he still knew, after all that he had achieved – after all the critical endorsement and public recognition that had come his way , both at home and abroad – there was still that keen intelligence and instinctive knowledge of what it was like to be outside all of this and be just yourself – private, solitary, at one.
When my Selected Poems came out last year Seamus joined the reading party without hesitation. Back home afterwards he remarked to what probably looked like my uptight countenance,’ Enjoy the day, Relax and enjoy this’. That was his way. I saw him only a few weeks ago at a book launch, moving with his wife Marie through the crowd, the pressing of all those around delighted by his simply being there. I could only nod from the other side of the floor and recognise again the wonder this truly remarkable man brought with him no matter where he went; he is irreplaceable.
I was one of the countless people who felt a pure, uncomplicated dismay on hearing that Seamus Heaney had died. The quality of the feeling taught me more than I had known about how much I, too, admired and loved him. I was not always such a devotee, though I followed the rise of his reputation certainly from North onwards. Orientated as I was to poets more aligned with the modernist tradition, I saw Heaney’s relative formalism as a step backwards. Believing that poetry ought to use language that in Eliot’s phrase was ‘neither diffident nor ostentatious,’ I was wary of the way the early Heaney seemed at times to have swallowed a dictionary. And I mistrusted the way a Northern Ireland ‘school’ was being promoted as somehow both a way of ‘dealing with’ the Troubles and as offering the best hope for poetry to regain some of its lost cultural centrality.
But that was then, and a lot has changed. Heaney himself changed, or became more fully what he had it in him to be. Now he is, as in Mallarmé’s tribute – nominally to Poe, but surely in truth to the archetypal poet – ‘such as into himself at last eternity changes him’ (Tel qu’en lui-même enfin l’éternité le change). How much he spoke for Ireland is evident from the way, if ever a country could be said to be united in grief, Ireland is united in mourning Seamus Heaney. Nobody to whom it matters could fail to feel that he spoke also for poetry. He stood for poetry in his life, his luminous prose and speeches, and his poems. That he was a good and generous man, without rancour, has been amply attested to; and it is something everyone who knew anything about him instinctively felt. By standing for poetry, and by the kind of poetry he wrote, he stood also for the decencies of common life, and for unassuming people. He wrote tirelessly about childhood memories, and family loves and loyalties. Because he grew up in a traditional rural environment, this meant that he wrote about the natural world and time-honoured traditions, the old ways of life, and craftsmanship, and community. These things have at times been unfashionable topics but to Heaney there was nothing more important, and he was right. He could make all this resonate with a worldwide audience because he was a deeply learned man with a sense of world history and culture, and a perpetual openness to the new. He long ago became one who promoted others rather than himself, and used knowledge and sophistication in the service of simplicity in the best sense. His poetry is an ever-fresh resource for us who remain, and it will endure. Its hallmark is the craftsman-like skill he proposed to himself from the start in ‘Digging’, which renders the ordinary moment not only with hallucinatory vividness but with a transfiguring exaltation. ‘And strike this scene in gold leaf too’, he exhorts himself in poem xv of ‘Lightenings’, ‘so that a greedy eye cannot exhaust it’. The scene in question is one in which his father ‘bends to a tea-chest packed with salt,/ The hurricane-lamp held up at eye level/ in his bunched left fist, his right hand foraging…’ At the end of the poem the poet recalls being a child given a priceless gift, and as we read the gift becomes ours:
That night I owned the piled grain of Egypt.
I watched the sentry’s searchlight on the hoard.
I stood in the door, unseen and blazed upon.
The few writers present were offered a buffet meal. This was food I had grown accustomed to in the newly democratic countries of eastern Europe: rye bread, dark and peppered meats, trays of wine. The city was Vilnius, but similar occasions were occurring in Budapest, Prague, Zagreb, Bratislava, Novi Sad. Political edifices had shattered and a huge sense of cultural relief and yet trepidation was palpable.
The man in line with me at the buffet was Seamus Heaney, grey haired, broad enough, his dark jacket showing copious dandruff. He steered me away from the others.
‘Look,’ said Heaney, ‘I’ll just say this. I’m a great admirer of your work. Let’s leave it at that.’ And then he moved on.
The next day the main Lithuanian daily led with a photograph of Seamus Heaney greeting the Lithuanian president. Or was it the other way around? We other writers had been invited to meet Seamus Heaney and that, for me, was surprising enough.
What, I remembered thinking, was Heaney doing in Vilnius? Such invitations, after the Nobel, must have been endless; initially exciting, eventually dispiriting. And of course, he used the same ‘I’m a great admirer of your work’ line to every western world poetaster he encountered at such functions. Almost certainly such people would have been familiar with his poetry. As he would have been oblivious of theirs.
As a reader I have always turned first to Hughes and RS. But Heaney was a poet I would expect to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. And feel exasperated if he did not. Also, of huge importance, is Heaney’s dedication to ‘translation’. Indeed, today it is rare to meet a significant writer who does not ‘translate’, or at least acknowledge the freedoms and opportunities ‘translating’ can create.
In the west of Ireland in 2012, I read a recent poem of my own and asked the audience to name the writers who might have influenced it. No-one picked Heaney but I was conscious that my ‘The Mongoose’ might owe a debt to his hugely famous ‘The Skunk’.
In 2012 Heaney seemed set for more productive years. Yet no death at 74 can be surprising. I measure everyone against my own father, who died at 71. For me RS Thomas at 87 was expected; Anne Szumigalski, 77, sad; Peter Redgrove, 71, and Ted Hughes, 69, shocking; John Tripp, 59, grievous; Iwan Llwyd, 52, tragic.
For writers of my age it’s inevitable we owe Seamus Heaney a great deal. And always, such influences are to be celebrated, never denied, as Heaney never denied those who had influenced his work. The writer who denies his influences shames his own writing. The more influences the better.
A word too, about Seamus Heaney’s work as an editor. I value hugely that marvellous compendium. ‘The Rattle Bag’, he published with Ted Hughes in 1982.
A long time ago I read Seamus Heaney’s poem
About Gallarus Oratory, then I thought I’d find
My way there when I was living at Dingle.
The “core of dark” which Heaney had spoken of,
Lying within its windowless pile of stones,
Somehow held the promise of illumination.
After a windswept, cliff-edged graveyard
(Which Brendan Behan had once joked
Was “the healthiest graveyard in Ireland”),
There rose a diminutive chapel with room
For few to do much in the way of orating.
This was Séipéilín Ghallarais,
‘The Church of the Place of the Foreigners’.
A tiny smudge on the horizon at Ard na Caithne,
Swelling up from the turf to a sharp point.
I entered, and I felt this black glow.
A few holy snatches came to mind.
I found myself testing the air with them,
For there was no one for miles around.
The stones’ structure held an empowering space.
A fruitful limbo that hovered between life and death.
It seemed a place where goodness could happen,
And also somewhere you could hear an inner voice
Getting louder, and resonating within the chamber
Until you had to apologize for talking to yourself
To a nebulous presence known to the cold air –
To the something that imbued this pile of stones,
And marinated them in prayer and reflection.
The Oratory has stood there since the sixth century.
It offers nothing: no food, no drink,
No mind-expanding chemicals,
Yet it feeds those entering its realm.
Heaney spoke of his being in it alone,
And of having the sense “of dropping
To the heart of the globe.”
That felt about right: a dark-age diving suit
In which to sink down, past the beaten earth floor
And then, reinforced, to ascend just as easily
To where the pointed roof indicated, and beyond.
I felt that Gallarus was there to teach silence,
And to offer the subversive reassurance
That there’s still something that’s not for sale.
I know the poetry of Seamus Heaney as part of my day job; teaching secondary school English, there are a select few contemporary poets who are curricularly unavoidable. It seems wrong, somehow, that Heaney has passed from being counted as contemporary, instead consigned to being, merely, one of the twentieth century’s greatest.
‘Is Seamus still alive, sir?’ I will be asked. GCSE students are often as quick to reach first name terms with the subjects of their studies in conversation as they are in writing. They are also more comfortable – like most adults, too, perhaps – when a poet is dead. Poets, like poetry, are supposed to be dead. I shall miss the great pleasure I took informing students that Seamus was very much alive and well and living in Ireland.
Heaney’s poetry is full of the stuff of life. Despite the horrendously mundane context of my almost certainly having first read some of his best poems on hurriedly photocopied worksheets and coursework booklets compiled by time-pressured colleagues, Heaney’s work always glistened on the page and bubbled in the classroom. His work is easy to teach because his narrators are always dipping their hands into frogspawn or watching puppies drown or waiting to see their dead brother. Heaney’s poetry is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by both life and death. Sometimes the hand hovers over the jar but the poem itself never flinches.
Teenagers understand this instinctively; life’s inherent fear, disgust and danger, its cruelty. Sometimes a worksheet or an overly structured analysis can beat the life out of a poem until it ceases to be a poem at all, just badly photocopied words on cheap white A4. ‘Why are we even doing this, sir? I just don’t get poetry, sir; it’s just not my thing.’ Never sentences uttered in a Seamus Heaney lesson. Only ever appreciation; a subtle, often unarticulated, understanding that would be of no use in the coursework essay, but might, just, have enriched a life.
‘Is Seamus still alive, sir?’ As a new term begins, that’s a difficult question to answer.
Four Quatrains for Seamus Heaney
First, the rush of something being said
as if by ghosts of tongues and lives. Then, the quiet
plash of music as it lands in the ear and rests
before moving on without ever letting go.
However small the island, there’s the sea
where things move on before letting go,
where soul embarks by pushing from the shore
to tides where who knows what winds blow.
Poems are used to living in small spaces:
worlds vanish before the word can quite restore them.
Back in the pub the drinks go round. Faces
hang in the air with their jars before them.
The holiness of the heart’s affections brings
us round to something like a form.
Your round, Seamus. Head out into the storm
where word is wave and the whole pub sings.
Over the last twenty years, there’s been talk of ‘the rise of poetry’, at one stage it was even described as the ‘new rock and roll’ but poetry is marginal no matter what they say. Most people haven’t the time or the inclination to pay attention to it. So Seamus Heaney really was a rare bird – particularly in poetry – a true star. He made us proud of poetry and proud to be Irish. I came to London while the IRA’s bombing campaign was in full swing so I was touched or sometimes it felt more like smeared by what Heaney referred to as the ‘demeaning facts’ of the Northern conflict as it spilled onto what was called the mainland. When I started writing then, Heaney was my guide. His Government of the Tongue was my bible in the late eighties/early nineties. Now there’s talk of how he is not ‘difficult’ as if that is a virtue. He is not easy either, that’s why he is special. The much quoted lines ‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write something for us? If I do write something, whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself,’ are stirring precisely because we know he wasn’t standing on the sidelines. His idea of the poet – not just as a witness but in some way part of a collective guilt – is what drives the early Bog poems. And when the Northern conflict was finally over, his anger boiled into the hair-raising Oresteia of The Spirit Level, painful, difficult, beautiful and utterly cathartic; his ‘Watchman’ showing us that a truly great poet cannot and will not look away.
Seamus Heaney, that great poet, has left us. He who wove the muck and beauty of his rural Irish upbringing in Mossbawn, Co Derry, into a grand tapestry, a living broadcloth of language, where move and walk and speak and grunt, (or hiss or bark or buck), people, animals, saints and gods.
My own feeling is that through his work he gives us each back our ‘primitive’ minds, (or under-mind, or whatever you choose to call it) again and again, that mind we live with every day and especially every night of our lives, but with which we generally lose the ability to converse around the age of nine or ten, (unless something or somebody helps us). The mind that holds the kind of dream-thinking, from which all our great stories spring, our tales of great loves, of battles lost or won, our classics, our epics, our mythologies and histories, and our folk-tales too – and of course our poetry, which is how most of the old stories were told (or sung) anyhow.
I use the present tense, ‘gives’, for although Seamus Heaney has gone, his legacy is left us, and keeps on doing the good work. And what a legacy! I leave it to others to list his work in more detail – but Death of a Naturalist, Electric Light, District and Circle, Human Chain – each a very different collection, but each with that ‘Heaneyesque’ formal assurance and delight in language as an almost living entity, with the power to affect our reality, to make things happen, to rebalance our view of the world, to help us face up to the harshness and cruelties of our time, as well as the pleasures and joys in equal measure, to restore our psychic equilibrium.
The ethical gravitas of which Heaney was master showed his marked courage too, in dealing with the daily atrocities of Northern Ireland during the troubles, and with the experience and effect of the stroke he suffered in 2006, and which he dealt with so movingly in Human Chain, most notably in the poem Chanson d’Aventure. (This same collection contains one of his most beautiful love poems to his wife, Marie, Derry Derry Down.)
An educated, cultured, modern man, Heaney was also a country man, as deeply familiar with the culture and traditions of the soil as he was with those of Virgil and Dante. Perhaps it was this double-sidedness of his own background, steeped in country lore yet with an excellent education (at St. Columb’s College, in Derry, and later Queen’s University Belfast), that made him equally surefooted when dealing with the broad light of day, the sometimes harsh strip-lighting of our century, and the mottled shadows of the underworld, those unearthly shades among which we all walk.
During his lifetime Heaney won numerous prizes, most notably the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, but also the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Irish PEN Award and the T. S. Eliot Prize. He knew and communicated with poets from all over the world, and was an important public figure in Ireland, well known for his generosity and approachability.
So what does he leave us with? Perhaps a silver tassie, a grand chalice of some kind – or more likely a cauldron, of the old and battered kind, weathered and rusted, which continually fills and refills with a nourishing brew, no matter how much we dip our cups into it and drink our fill, leaving us continually strengthened, refreshed and reinvigorated.
Beidh muid chailleann dó. He will be missed.
In the fog of poetry the name Heaney emerged for me like an island in the sea. Like one of those rocks in the south Atlantic, there in the bright sun one day and the next, when the mariners look again, completely gone. I couldn’t get a hold on this. Heaney just didn’t fit into my world of Dada, ee cummings, Cage, Gomringer, Jack Kerouac and Gertrude Stein. But there was something in his work that kept leaping up at me, catching my breath when I didn’t expect it. They were all talking about him, out there in poetry land. Something had to be going on. I caught it, I think, or some of it, in 1981 when the poet came to Cardiff and I read North right the way through. Poems of death and history, of Ireland and its invaders, its place in the world, its violence, and the bogland that sinks and swallows absolutely all. ‘Quagmire, swampland, morass: the slime kingdoms, domains of the cold-blooded, of mud pads and dirtied eggs.’ Much later, in the west of Ireland, there for the music rather than the verse, I bought a fat selected Heaney from Eason’s and thrilled to the sheer power and precision, the human unbundling, the virtuosity and the distillation of the world’s truths I found in his verse. That he’s gone means that we’ve not just lost another poet but that we’ve lost a north European giant. How did you do it Seamus? Like this:
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed
treasure your hands have known
‘I would begin with the word omphalos, meaning the word navel, and hence the stone that marked the centre of the world, and repeat it, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos, until its blunt and falling music became the music of someone pumping water outside our front door. It is Co. Derry in the early 1940s.’
So begins Seamus Heaney’s recollection of his childhood home of Mossbawn, and at once we are swept into the Heaney universe, a place where the guiding spirit of Joyce is never far away, with his invocation to ‘turn base matter into gold’. A place where both Heaney’s home life and the Troubles and joys of his community are given the same significance as other artists may choose to give to emperors and empresses and, of course, wars.
As a young man first attending and then teaching at Queen’s College, Belfast, war was never very far away for Heaney but when he wrote about it he did so from this perspective, letting the murderer in through the front door, so to speak. Showing us what barbarism is and how it is. How it is the enemy of our fervent desire that goodness and kindness should prosper.
Writing about the ‘The Tolland Man’ in his essential early essay, ‘Feeling into Words’, Heaney remembers seeing the book which inspired that poem, the ‘appositely titled’, The Bog People, for the first time:
[Its] ‘unforgettable photographs blended in my mind with photographs of atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish political and religious struggles.’
Later in the essay he goes on to say that there is a need ‘to attempt to define and interpret the present by bringing it into significant relationship with the past, and I believe that effort in our own present circumstances has to be urgently renewed.’ This is something that Heaney achieved time and time again in poems such as ‘The Tolland Man’ and ‘From the Republic of Conscience’. And it is, in part, this public conscience that makes him so well loved.
He believed, indeed, that it was the duty of the poet (something he was always disagreeing with his friend and protege, Paul Muldoon about) to confront these issues. That a poet was like a diviner in that,
The diviner resembles the poet in his function of making contact with what lies hidden, and in his ability to make palpable what was sensed or raised.
I’ve been in the Lake District the last few days, home, of course, to so many of the great poets. Most especially the home of that ‘diviner’ that Heaney admired so much, Wordsworth. Every day since I have been here this early September has been marked by an Elysian light of the kind that casts the Lakeland Fells in the sort of absurdly well-defined, golden aspect that always looks hyperbolic in the work of those local artists, the Heaton Coopers. But there it is, I see such honeyed colours and looming shades with my own eyes, the mares’ tails and mackerel skies so clear that even from low vantage points it is possible to see mountain ranges almost in their entirety.
I was descending from one such panorama when it struck me that it was almost as though the poetic Gods and Goddesses had declared a public holiday to celebrate the goodness and the revelatory power of one of their own. And it was just as I was thinking this and not deeming myself too fanciful, that an impossibly low flying fighter plane shot across the lake, shattering the afternoon silence like a child’s scream. Like a reminder to myself not to get too fanciful because barbarism is always with us. Like Seamus Heaney we must learn to see it for what it is and to look it square in the eye, putting as we do, all of our ‘feelings into words.’
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis