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Remembering Seamus Heaney
What I have to say is personal, a string of little anecdotes that will make, I hope, a complex kind of knot. Seamus Heaney’s ability to go all the way to the bottom of a subject (and the bottom is a long way down, as Eliot once said), his devotion to political emotions as opposed to political convictions, Seamus’s generosity and passion as a teacher, are all part of his public persona. But let me list a few personal qualities about Seamus that for me feel like bedrock.
The self-mockery and roguish good humor, but also the colloquial eloquence and sense of kindred feeling that pervades Seamus’s conversation is such that you feel smarter, funnier, and more genuinely alive whenever you’re in the same room with him—in speaking once of some Portugese sausages set aflame, he said, “Now those are sausages of the mind!” And once in a car, stopped at a stoplight, when we saw the curve of a harp silhouetted against a windowshade, Seamus said, “It looks just like a seahorse.” And I remember speaking to him about the death of my father, in which my dad’s body—and long after my father wanted to keep on living—simply refused to give out. Seamus nodded and said, with great accuracy of feeling: “Oh I know, I know: the hateful strength of the dying.” And on a foggy morning when we were out walking in Dublin, he said, “It’s a soft day.”
Another of Seamus’s qualities is his gift for putting younger people at ease, and even offering them immediate terms of equality: he’s never played the eminence grise, the laureate, the literary lion. As a man and as a poet, he took to heart what Michael McLaverty once told him: “To hell with overstating it: don’t have your veins bulging in your biro.”
The next quality sounds simple, but in a way it comprehends all the others: Seamus always shows up: he shows up as a friend, as an artist—and if he’s been invited round at seven, he’s there at seven, if not before! Now, I’m not saying that punctuality is an absolute virtue (it can be disconcerting if you consider yourself a fashionably late host), but in Seamus’s case, his inner clock is set to five of, not five past—that clock keeps a strict accounting with himself, but it’s unhassled and unhassling if you yourself happen to be late.
And this tolerance is emblematic of his love for the quirks in other people’s characters: Seamus once told me how David Hammond, the Irish singer and documentary filmmaker, called him early one morning, and said, “Hello, Seamus, are you awake?” and when Seamus said, “No, David, I’m still asleep,” David said, undeterred, “Well!—are you awake now?”
So: several years back, Seamus and I are walking to a Jewish poetry festival at Boston University when I notice his walk slowing, and a kind of hypervigilance taking over, a tightening and a hunkering down into himself: and he said, in a level voice, as if commenting on the weather, “There’s been a bomb scare.” And indeed there had been: police cars fumed under the trees, a bomb squad was standing by, and a moment later an ambulance, with its lights flashing, drove up. After the event, which went ahead as planned once it became clear that there was no bomb, I asked Seamus how he’d known: “Ah, well,” he said, “you get a sense for these things: and then I saw that the police weren’t moving in, but standing back…”
I also recall the first time I visited Seamus in Dublin. It was after his mother died, and he’d written, fairly recently, the beautiful sequence of sonnets about his mother’s death, “Clearances.” I was up early, reading in the living room, when Seamus came down a little later in his undershirt. Marie, Seamus’s wife, who ought to be the subject of her own tribute for the ease and eloquence of her book of translations of Irish legends entitled, Over Nine Waves, as well as her genius for being at the center for most of her life of “the music of what happens,” anyway, Marie gave me the poems, still marked up with little changes in thick black ink from Seamus’s pen. Such heart and skill and reliability of sensibility—they impressed you with their greatness not by their obscurity, or fierceness, or sonority, or by being milllion-dollar worded—but possessing the distinction of good conversation. As Robert Lowell, Seamus’s good friend, once wrote in another context: “I do not mean mannered conversation, the humor the English are said to inherit or get in their schools; but a distinction that a man must have in him, for he can never fake it or buy it.”
Later that same day, Seamus and I drove out to his cottage in Glanmore. We established a kind of routine: him upstairs in his study working away translating Aeneas’s journey to the underworld—a translation that would begin one of his most beautiful books, Seeing Things, in part about the death of his father—and me downstairs trying to scribble what I could, but aware of Seamus upstairs, muttering to himself a little as he composed.
The cottage was very basic, very cold, slate roof, clinking latch: and it projected its own numen: it was, as Seamus said of the sausages, “a cottage of the mind.” Through it all, I felt a kind of wonder that such a house could exist, that I was sleeping in it, and that Seamus was immensely gracious throughout in allowing my presence. And even though you had to wear your coat all day to keep from shivering, I loved how the “stony up-againstness” of the place seemed to say, Well, look—you may not be exactly comfortable, but go ahead anyway—make yourself at home.
Every afternoon, I’d head off for a three or four hour walk, and when I came back in the evening, we’d sit outside if there was a bit of a sun, or go over the lines he’d wrung out that day: he knocked them off 10 to 15 lines at a time, and I loved how he treated it as just a job of work: nothing fussy or angsty in his process, just a severe and undeluded sense of what was up to the mark and what hadn’t yet arrived. And then in the evening, we’d boil potatoes, fry up some fish, talk, listen while the radio played, drink a whiskey or a Guiness or, most nights, both—and then take ourselves off to bed.
I recall the afternoon we first arrived, Seamus was putting together a new edition of a selected poems, I think, and he invited me to to go over the table of contents with him: it was a perfect day, warmish, clear, getting on in the afternoon so you could start to feel a chill gathering. We sat in wooden chairs with a wheelbarrow between us, as a kind of improvised table, each of us holding in our hands a sheaf of poems. Seamus asked me to put the ones I thought should be included into the wheelbarrow. When I asked him if there were any principles guiding him in his selections, he shrugged, laughed, and said with perfect one-down-man-ship, as opposed to one-up-man-ship, “Oh, just the ones I like.”
After dinner on another evening, Seamus asked me if I had any plans to put together a book of essays, since he knew I’d written a good deal of critical prose. I shrugged and said something like, Well, that would be nice, but I supposed I needed a theme. At this, Seamus smiled and said with a kind of roguish self-mockery,”Oh for God’s sake, Sleigh, stop putting on airs: you don’t need a theme, you just need a title!”
I remember on our last night together we took a drive to the manor house of Garech Browne, founder of Claddagh records and a champion of traditional Irish music. The house was set in a moody spot next to a black lake, and at the very bottom of a deep valley in the Wicklow Mountains. To my eye, it was as grand and otherworldy as it was “iambic and crepuscular,” but for Seamus it was the home of a friend—a man whom I’d meet a few years later when I was visiting Seamus just after he’d been elected to give the Oxford Lectures in Poetry. But that night, Browne wasn’t at home, and Seamus and I walked to the lake and skipped stones for a bit, and then fooled around throwing sticks into the lake, heaving them like javelins, horsing around, really: and if there’s an image that I retain from those days, it’s of Seamus in an old green sweater with holes in it, clutching in his hand a stick that he’s poised to throw, as I stand next to him with a stick that I’m also poised to throw, and Seamus giving me a look that says I know that we know how ridiculous we look, but let’s do this anyway: and so we did.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was originally presented as a talk at the 2013 AWP conference in Boston. Please visit Heaney’s biography to learn more about his life and career. You can also listen to Heaney in conversation with Michael Laskey in a Poetry Lectures podcast, or watch Heaney in this Poetry Everywhere video reading his poem “Blackberry Picking.”]