In Memoriam: Seamus Heaney
The news of Seamus Heaney’s death sent ripples of sadness through the world today. We invited a number of Boston Review contributors to send in their reminiscences.
Seamus Heaney, as I’ve often said, was a mensch as well as a great poet. When he sent me a poem for the first issue of Slate (his wonderful “Little Canticles of Asturias”), I don't think he had any notion what an “internet magazine” might be. He gave me the poem because I asked him for one, and we were friends. Readers of Boston Review should know that his attachment to this place was deep. I think Boston and Cambridge supplied, a little, some haven from the central, sometimes fierce spotlight, for him, of being in Dublin or London. Here, there was a little refuge in being an outsider, as well as in the glare. He handled it all with class and generosity. When reading lives of writers, many great writers often behaving in ways that were petty or worse, I've thought to myself, “Thank god for Chekhov—a great writer who was also a decent, generous, good person.”
Well, thank god for Seamus.
My first poetry prize was given to me by Seamus Heaney in the early 1990s, when he was serving as the Oxford Professor of Poetry. The sum total of the award was to share a pint (though I was a teetotaller) at a pub with “Professor Heaney.” His commendation—spoken jovially over a Guinness at Magdalen Bar—went something like, “Well your poem wasn’t very good now was it, but it was better than everyone else’s.” Followed by his disarmingly dear and radiant smile.
Almost fifteen years later, I walked into my first day on the job at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University, and who should be standing there but Seamus himself, with a BBC film crew in tow. “Oh, Christina, you're here….” he said, without missing a beat, as if our Oxford toast had taken place only the day before. He’d remembered my name after almost two decades.
For all of my curating, I own only two poetry broadsides: one of W.C. Williams’ red wheelbarrow and one of a poem called “The Call” by Seamus Heaney. In that poem, the narrator phones a family member and the receiver (these were the landline days) is put down while someone goes to fetch him outside. In the meantime, the narrator imagines the awaited man peacefully weeding in the garden until the clock (which the phone has been placed near) assumes its own conversation with him, in the form of an overwhelming knell. Shortly before the phone is picked up again, the narrator wonders “if it were nowadays” (as if death were not every day), if “this is how Death would summon Everyman. // Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.”
How many of us who have been “called” to this art form have nearly said we loved Seamus Heaney. How many of us owe our continuance in this genre to his goodwill, graciousness and integrity as a poet and as a person. “Your poem wasn’t very good now was it….”—his honesty surpassing any Pulitzer.
Man much missed, how you call to us.
Over twenty years ago I was living in Dublin, studying at Trinity College. To say that Seamus Heaney’s presence there was significant—that he marked the literary and cultural landscape of that place and time—is a vast understatement. I attended student plays entirely based around one of his poems, I watched movies that clearly referenced his “Sweeney Astray” and Yeats’s Cuchulain poems (the terrifyingly good The Field), I listened to bands who set his lyrics to music, I dipped in and out of student conversations that circled around his latest books. And of course, I read him. Obsessively, continuously, for years. And then, weirdly, I stopped. Just this summer, however, I returned to his work and was struck anew at the muscularity and richness of his language, how his Irish idiom re-energized, even re-made the English lyric. Yesterday morning at my desk, I re-read Death of a Naturalist, whose rhythms seeped into my own work throughout the day. I never thought he’d die; like so many, I’d hoped he never would.
Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry-Picking” was the poem I read in high school that made me realize (a late realization) what it was to read and feel. Reading then, as now, at the moment of going inside for the school year, when the “heavy rain and sun” of the end of August in the American southeast makes the season’s riot and rot seem more wild than it might actually be, the “you” of Heaney’s poem made me feel like me. “You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet”: I had. It was surprising. Heaney’s poetry was for me—and I know for many others—a gateway into poetry, an opening onto the pleasures of a wider field beyond. His absence feels palpable, but his work still so generative: “a space / utterly empty, utterly a source.”
As I write, media social and otherwise are thick with homages to and remembrances of the man The New York Times calls the “Soul of Irish Poetry,” Seamus Heaney, who died today at the age of 74.
Heaney, our Irish Nobel Laureate, gave me three gifts: The Rattle Bag anthology, co-edited with Ted Hughes, which introduced undergraduate me to gems such as Lady Augusta Gregory's translation of Donal Og (“It is late last night the dog was speaking of you”) and the first look I ever had at poems by Zbigniew Herbert, Attila Jozsef, Stevie Smith and ton of other poets who wrote beyond what had been my standard reading fare: the candy of Cummings, the goth girl drama of Plath and the go-daddy vernacular of the Beats. Later in my life, his translation of Beowulf brought the seventh-century world of Scandinavian mead halls and thanes into such sharp, clear and vivid relief I felt as if I had really never read it before ―as it did for many others: it became a New York Times bestseller.
But mostly I remember Heaney for one poem. Appearing in the September 25, 2003 issue of The New York Review of Books, “Helmet” encapsulated for me, perfectly, the wrenched astonishment of having lived to see a terrible September day. The poem had me discover this gradually, as Heaney patiently, steadily, evoked this “Boston fireman’s gift,” its brim and clasp and color. The turn comes in the penultimate stanza, when Heaney declares, “As if I were up to it, as if I had / Served time under it, his fire-thane’s shield”: the repetition of “as if” hit me then like a cry. I didn’t quite understand why, but I felt it―a cry of helplessness, of lament, of a kind of piercing confusion―a confusion that, after I finished the poem’s last stanza and read the poem again, I read as the confusion of having withstood calamity, a confusion we sometimes call survivor's guilt.
I don’t know if Heaney wrote this poem in response to 9/11, or even read it afterward as such. But maybe you too can remember all the poetic responses to that calamity, so many of them linguistically, poetically wanting, even if the feelings expressed were heartfelt and crushing. It’s hard to write well about world events, especially ones that shake us to our cores, and maintain both feeling and form in the telling. But “Helmet” does it. It became my objective correlative, not only for the feelings of having lived through 9/11, but for political poems everywhere. Seamus Heaney: thank you.
As if I were up to it, as if I had
Served time under it, his fire-thane’s shield,
His shoulder-awning, while shattering glass
And rubble-bolts out of a burning roof
Hailed down on every hatchet man and hose man
Till the hard-reared shield-wall broke.
“I like you best when you keep the beat,” Heaney said to me. I had perpetrated upon that week’s workshop what he in his charity had called “a dense oddity,” a chimera of clashing meters, a creature of casual violence, tripping hard on a cocktail of synthetic metaphors. Yeah, but what beat? (said my pocky muse.) And kept for whom? The curators? The intoners? The overstuffed and tweed-upholstered Celtophiles? And so I pawned his gift for a meretricious dissonance, a “new music,” refusing to acknowledge what he had already made plain: that those to whom a truly new music is entrusted know that New Music is, in fact, a contradiction in terms. His music—the surest, most perfected of all his generation—derives its newness from the elemental “freshness deep down things,” of sky and earth, settlement and solitude, the ancient weirdness of English and Gaelic,
the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
With his incomparable ear, in his irretrievable voice, he taught us to hear the ostinato undertones and empyrean overtones beyond the hubbub of novelty and noise. The news which he brought to us was that rarest of sorts: that of the familiar now finally known, that of the heard finally comprehended.
Seamus, our “great-rooted blossomer,” now that you are gone, it is you we need to teach us how to face the music of what is heard no longer:
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.