Monday, 2 September 2013
Beyond Silence Listened For: Seamus Heaney 1939-2013
Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin, 2009. Photo by Sean O'Connor
When on Friday I saw the news on my Facebook feed that Seamus Heaney had died, I first thought I'd seen wrong, then felt shock, then realised I was going to cry. All day on Facebook and elsewhere I saw similar responses from poets and poetry lovers, along with countless news stories from around the world, comments from students who said that Heaney had kindled in them a love for poetry or that they didn't really like poetry but they hadn't minded studying his - and on, and on. His death was one of the top stories on the Guardian and BBC websites. In Ireland, as well as worldwide, many public figures commented on their sense of sadness and shock, along with the general public. There was a good deal of shock; he was only 74 and while the last time I saw him read was over a year ago, some had seen him at events only a week or two ago. And there were so many poets, students and others who'd had personal encounters, and long-time friends - everyone so sad, especially friends, even those who didn't know him personally.
So much has been said already but I just wanted to say a little about Heaney's importance in my poetic life. He may very well have been the first contemporary living poet who I remember knowing of by name. I remember reading 'The Tollund Man' when I was fairly young - I would guess, between 12 and 14. At the time I think it was unlike any other poem I had read and it still carries this sort of aura, of at least a faint astonishment of my young self. It was at one and the same time personal and historical, physically evocative and disturbing, and relatable. There was just something that was different about it. I had similar experiences with 'The Otter' and 'The Skunk', though with their very different subject matters.
Later, my favourite Heaney poems have included 'The Toome Road', 'The Strand at Lough Beg', 'Act of Union', 'District and Circle', and of course 'The Underground'. Some of his poems gave me a further insight into the beauty and wounds of Ireland, my adopted country for a few years. Others left lines echoing through me, lines which continue to do so regularly, for years: "Let me sleep on your breast to the airport" ('Wedding Day'), "Lost for its sunlit hills" ('Out of Shot').
I was able to go to his readings three times. In fact, I attended the T S Eliot Prize reading where he was nominated (and won) for District and Circle, but he was unable to appear due to his recent stroke, which was disappointing and worrying. I finally saw him in 2010 (I think?) at Southbank for the release of Human Chain, again at the readings for the 2010 T S Eliot Prize (at the start of 2011), and finally at Poetry Parnassus a little over a year ago. His reading voice was beautiful and unpretentious. He was low-key, interesting and very witty, with a very kindly air. The first time I saw him, he concluded with 'Postscript' and I think I cried. I so badly wanted him to read that poem, possibly my favourite of his works. I just regret that at none of these readings I queued up or tracked him down for a book signing, though I think the T S Eliot reading might have been the only opportunity. Even a very short meeting would have been nice. Like so many, I think I assumed that I would have another chance, that he would be around for much longer. Everyone who ever met him has spoken of his kindness, including a friend who randomly spoke with him in Belfast years ago and only later found out that he was a famous poet.
All I really wanted to say was this: Seamus Heaney, your poetry changed our lives, for a lot of us at least a little, for some a lot. I'm so glad I was able to attend your readings three times but I'm sad that I never met you and I'm very sad that you're gone. We will miss you a lot and it's wonderful that your amazing verse is still with us.
Here is 'Postscript', a poem which will always be in my heart - a heart this week "caught off guard and blown open."
POSTSCRIPT (Seamus Heaney)