It is impossible to be Irish and to have any interest in the arts and not talk about Seamus Heaney, who has died today aged 74.
I never read enough of his poems. Partly because he wrote quite a lot of them and partly because my relationship with poetry has always been on/off. For me it sometimes seems like a closed universe – or perhaps a too open one. Compared to academics, my approach to reading poems is that of the narrow-minded autodidact – I hoover up what interests me and disregard whole chunks of the rest, and given that I have many friends in the poetry world, I sometimes feel I lack the requisite reading to add much to the discussion.
But what memories I have of Seamus Heaney are as bound up with the man as with the poems. I met him twice, and probably saw him at a distance more often. My recollection is of a very warm-hearted man, approachable and genuinely interested in the mundane details of other people’s lives. I remember his enquiring about my job – at the time I was a low-level programmer in a building society. He seemed intrigued rather than bored. And this all grew from a spontaneous conversation. That I remember too; it was not just that he tolerated company, he enjoyed speaking to people. There was no fence around him. He was one of the least pretentious people I have ever met.
But he was 24/7 poet. Never off duty. Not in a skull-waving, Alas-poor-Yorick fashion, but noticing the subtle interstices. Like the time the woman organising the festival – I think it might have been something to do with the Yeats Winter School – was introduced to him as, I can’t remember her name but something like “Frances Sweeney” – he beamed and exclaimed to his companion, “Very trochaic!”
As for the poems – well, I did a degree in English and while I remember shamefully less than I should, I did remember the haunting poem “Follower” with its killing last two lines. I remember seeing the original striped cover of Death of a Naturalist my father had bought and looking through it. And being in our summer home and seeing on the whitewashed wall opposite the fireplace a framed poem my grandfather had bought from the Tara Telephone publishing group which had been set up in the Seventies. A fragment of a Heaney poem that later made its way into his collection Staten Island still hangs there. That work too has family currency; he signed it for my parents with the line “May the gift be a candle in your home – 1985”.
But if you were to ask me how Heaney resonates with me now as a poet, I think I would have to respond with the title of one of his angriest poems, having read about stigma and injustice in Irish society over the last two years – “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing”. And oddly enough, just a few days ago when I was thinking about the Walking on Thin Ice contest, a line flew into my head like a bird seeking a wire: “the exact and tribal, intimate revenge”. Which is, of course, from his harsh, blunt and self-chastising, “Punishment”.
(And he was right. We are all complicit.)
So when Heaney speaks to me now, it is of the emotional and physical violence he observed in his poetry, past and present, north and south, to men and women, external and – most importantly of all to me, now – internal.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.