Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Seamus Heaney Reminds Me of Everything

A month ago I went to a Seamus Heaney tribute event at Kings Place which featured discussions and readings by Glenn Patterson (director of the Seamus Heaney Centre), Irish historian Roy Foster, poet Vona Groarke and actor Bríd Brennan.

The poems read included 'Two Lorries', among others, and there were discussions about Heaney's views on Britain and Ireland, how these contextualised his work and assured his importance - as well as his detailed and intimate observations about family life, rural living and so forth. To be honest, I wish I had taken notes, because I don't remember a lot of detail from the evening. I arrived a little late, and had in any case been feeling very stressed for several days. The most noteworthy thing of all was that the moment I started listening to Heaney's words, my stomach unknotted and my stress seemed to evaporate. It was this, more than anything else, that made me think about the place of Heaney's poetry in my life.

During the evening, photos of Heaney at different ages appeared on the large screen over the stage. His face filled me with affection and sadness, but sometimes the backgrounds were even more evocative; for example, the poet standing on a beach that was likely Dublin, bleak and beautiful with the shallow pools and flotsam of low tide. U2, one of my most important bands, admired and even referred to Heaney in their work, and that particular photo reminded me a little humorously of some of their more awkward photo shoots from their younger years. And then I started to think of the heady cocktail of Yeats and U2 that fuelled my earliest obsession with Ireland and, in part, led me to live there for three years.

As much as I love Heaney, I'm not sure I've ever obsessed over him the way I did over Yeats and U2. They're more responsible for my few years in Ireland, before London. But he's been around in my life for a long, long time. The shock and amazement of reading poems like 'The Tollund Man' and 'Punishment', at a young age (probably junior high), was considerable and has never quite left me. I had not known that poetry could be like that, especially the way he doubled past and present and folded them over each other. His collection District and Circle was released in 2006, shortly after I moved from Dublin to London, and it is entwined with that early time in London; my (then) romantic obsession with the Underground, the possible echoes of the 7/7 terrorist attack (only a couple of weeks before I moved to the city) in "blasted weeping rock-walls. Flicker-lit." 'Out of Shot' and 'Höfn' appeared in the Guardian back when we still all bought papers: I cut them out and stuck them up on my bedroom door. I actually saw Heaney read a few times in the few years before he died, one of those occasions being at Poetry Parnassus in 2012, which was a particularly significant event for me in terms of learning about international poetry. And it goes on.

There's art that we recall as, or that calls up, moments in time. Other authors, bands, books, poems seem to remind us of everything. Some can do both, and perhaps they are the most special of all. Seamus Heaney is in that category, for me.

Photo: Seamus Heaney by Burns Library, Boston College.  Photo used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license


  1. "The most noteworthy thing of all was that the moment I started listening to Heaney's words, my stomach unknotted and my stress seemed to evaporate" - What a lovely tribute to Heaney and the power of his work x

    1. I know... It was actually astonishing and made me even happier to be there!