Remembering Seamus Heaney
On the sad occasion of the loss of Nobel Prize–winning poet Seamus Heaney, who died on August 30, 2013, in Dublin, Ireland, Academy Chancellors Jane Hirshfield, Mark Doty, C. D. Wright, Anne Waldman, Marilyn Nelson, and Juan Felipe Herrera remember the beloved poet and his art.
The photo here comes from this past end-of-April, when Seamus Heaney, his wife, Marie, and I coincided at the American Academy’s guesthouse in Rome. Seamus was there to read poems and talk about Ovid, later in May—one more instance in a lifetime's service to those he felt were progenitor-compatriots in the art. The memory is so recent, and he was so well, fully himself. The Ovid presentation, I later heard, was, true to form, brilliant.
We spoke that night about those we’d known and been with together, now gone—Czeslaw and Carol Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Dennis O'Driscoll. Shared with Seamus and Marie, bereftness felt larger, softened of edge. Seamus carried with him, always it felt, a warming current, selfless and steady as a Gulf Stream. A benevolence-sense that existence itself was a grant of basic goodness, though without any blindness to what, beyond and outside goodness, might also be true.
I’ve met no poet more generous or more democratic in his way of being with others. In another part of the conversation, I mentioned that I'd not long before done something that he had, the year before: visited a class of very young students in a school in Grasmere, near Wordsworth's Dove Cottage. I told him of my extraordinary nervousness beforehand, and how I finally took myself to task: "Now, do you think Seamus Heaney gets so terribly frightened at the thought of speaking to six and seven year olds?" He answered: "Oh, but I did, I do."
You could count on such honesty from Seamus, and on the reliable eloquence, the twin brogues of accent and brilliance, though you could never predict the particulars they might be couched in—a rook, a root, a memory, some anthracite-compact quotation. In his presence and in his words, you felt the wholeness of his embrace of being, and also the burnish of original seeing—as if the world were a bas-relief being viewed from some different, sharpened angle of sun. And you felt, quite simply, more alive for his aliveness, in life and on the page.
In the poems, it seems to me, were two bedrock qualities, along with the virtuosity of Heaney’s singing and seeing—that signature joy in existence, and then the tempering knowledge of human choice, character, story, consequence. Consequence, above all perhaps—his words were never arabesques drawn on air for the sake of their own shapes. Beauty served him as a sextant for navigation, as a larger righting of justice and deepening of connection. Deepening mattered: his poems went as often into the earth as above it, and it’s interesting to notice how many of them take on some vertical axis, whether digging or climbing.
Two lines from his 2010 book, Human Chain, came to mind and stayed, once I’d taken in the shock of his too-soon passing—
I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.
Any newness of mind is daunting. A good poet tests truth as frankly and impolitely as a classroom of very young children tests those who visit for what they might bring. Without diminishing the seriousness of poetry or his hopes for its powers to persuade toward the good, Seamus Heaney found a way to make of the daunting a habitable grass-woven nest: intricate, fragile, warming, self-supporting and lasting. He made of poetry and of his own life a place—historied, lived in, worded—in which a thoughtful and hopeful species might come to try on more largeness of spirit, more ethical balance, more unblindered seeing, more praise, more simple kindness. His poems, thoroughly Ireland's and thoroughly the world's and thoroughly his own, now ours, show these things not unconnected.
(Photo: Jane Hirshfield and Seamus Heaney at the American Academy in Rome's Villa Aurelia, April 29, 2013. Credit: Marie Heaney.)
Late in the Clinton administration, the President and First Lady hosted a party to celebrate American poetry at the White House. I was standing with a group of poets with the President, and one of us asked if he read poetry. He lit up a little and said that he'd been reading The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney's version of Sophocles, and that it had been important to him in thinking about peace talks in Northern Ireland. A moment I wanted to remember, in memory of Seamus, and a straight-from-the-horse's- mouth (so to speak) demonstration of poetry's place in public life.
Seamus Heaney was Ireland’s irenic Taoiseach. Ireland was not a country, he said, but a manuscript. It could not have held a more appealing citizen scribbler. I spent an afternoon with him and American poet Henri Cole, with Seamus at the wheel. He enjoyed driving. Quoting unaffectedly. Passing the Martello tower in Sandycove on “the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.” Listening to his old hero Czeslaw Milosz on disc. Rather, having us listen, as he, no doubt, knew the recording verbatim. He wanted to show us a few literary landmarks ending at his small country house on what had been J. M. Synge’s family property. Marie was there, visiting with a friend. Later he came back to Dun Laoghaire to join the writers in the hotel bar for a drink. He savored one. More than Marie would have permitted. He enjoyed being among his familiars again. The Irish poets. He enjoyed being Seamus Heaney. He was genuinely good at it. Believing, as he did, “that whatever had to be written would somehow get itself written.”
“The air was thick with a bass chorus”
I’ve joked of late about how it’s the slime molds who will inherit the earth—post-Anthropocene (the geological epoch we’re in which some think should replace “Holocene,” as we’re in an age when the planet does not feel the interfering greedy hand of Man). And we will have a “slime mold poetics” with a lot of slurping and smacking, like the “slap and plop” Seamus Heaney invokes in his wonderful “Death of a Naturalist,” which comes to mind often in these urgent ecological times. And which I’ve enjoyed reading aloud to students. His poem is a great antidote to sentimental “nature poetry” and offers a palpable sense of that very specific visceral, scary experience and process with its lush primordial science and sound, from “flax-dam festered in the heart of the townland” to the “thick slobber of frogspawn.” And the threat of the “great slime kings…gathered for vengeance” who might clutch the poet’s hand as he tries to escape and he would be gone forever into that ooze of flax rot, huge sods and “fields rank with cowdung.”
The death of a poet is always hard and we mourn that vocal life and unique presence that was so attuned to the vibrant particulars of this world, as Seamus Heaney was—with his special wit and generosity. And we will always have the poems that continue to reverberate deeply as this one does for me.
My being awarded an National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1990 made it possible for me to take a leave from my full-time teaching position. With held breath and crossed fingers I wrote to Seamus Heaney to introduce myself and ask whether he would allow me to sit in on his graduate poetry workshop at Harvard. To my astonishment, he said yes. So I drove from central Connecticut to Cambridge every week and, for the most part, listened and adored. Seamus was brilliant, enlightening, and very funny. He began each critique by saying something positive about the poem to be discussed. One day he began by saying, “Richard, this poem is BEAUTIFULLY typed!” As I was an outrider, Seamus allowed only one of my poems to be discussed, toward the end of a class meeting late in the semester. I handed it around, and the students—all white, male would-be Eliots—ripped into it for about thirty minutes, with all kinds of comments and suggestions. As we left the room, Seamus took me aside and quietly told me that the problem with poetry workshops is that there’s always something the group can find to criticize, always some improvement they can suggest. He said I should ignore everything the students had said and suggested, and not change a single word.
I was in Seattle, Washington, in '79 bumming around the university bookstore, and I picked up a book by Heaney. The lines in the poem, gone now, mentioned a small town, the hillocks, homes lit up by a lamp maybe and most of all the "purple smoke" moving over the lives and arrangements of human beings. I loved how he painted the landscapes. Forever, it seems, I have kept these lines moving with my writing. A combination of colors, life-source and the ways we really live, I think. Thank you, Seamus.
September 3, 2013