In Memory of Seamus Heaney

When you get to be my age, i.e., the ol’ “three score and ten” of Psalm 90, the years can seem like a blur, so when I opened Facebook this morning, I was surprised that already nine years have passed since the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s death at 74. Although it is commonplace now to hear somebody call 70-something sort young for death, Heaney’s mortal dress was more than a little tattered – he looked frail, every bit of three score and fourteen – and it appears that a mere fall did him in. 

among school children

I first became enamored with Heaney in 1978.  Ashley Brown, a former professor, invited me to dinner at his house on Barnwell Street not long after he had garnered a bit of fame for appearing frequently in The Habit of Being, a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters.  It was a memorable evening with Dr. Brown as he hauled out personal photographs of him and O’Connor and also of his dear friend Elizabeth Bishop, whom he had brought to South Carolina for a reading when I was still in graduate school.[1]  During the evening, he asked me if I had heard of Heaney, and when I admitted I hadn’t, he whipped out a couple of poems, so as soon as I returned to Charleston, I purchased Heaney’s second collection, A Door into the Dark.

Of course, the 60’s were the decade of confessional poets like Plath and Lowell, poets whom my teacher James Dickey once referred to in class as “scab pickers,” poets who more often than not wrote in free verse and who demanded from the reader – at least in Lowell’s case – the patience to unravel seemingly random associations, many of which pertained to his private life.[2]  

Heaney’s verse was different – musical, earthy – its subject matter a mixture of the mundane and the political strife of Northern Ireland.   Here he is in “The Outlaw” describing in loose iambic couplets a bull mating with a cow:

Unhurried as an old steam engine shunting.

He circled, snored, and nosed. No hectic panting,

Just the unfussy ease of a good tradesman;

Then an awkward unexpected jump, and

His knobbled forelegs straddling her flank,

He slammed life home, impassive as a tank.

Dropping off like a tipped-up load of sand.

“She‟ll do,‟ said Kelly and tapped his ash-plant

Across her hindquarters. “If not, bring her back.‟

I walked ahead of her, the rope now slack

While Kelly whooped and prodded his outlaw

Who, in his own time, resumed the dark, the straw.

Heaney, standing, fourth from the left

Many of his poems deal with childhood experiences on the family farm right outside of Castledawson in County Londonderry.  Here’s a segment from the title poem of his first collection, “The Death of a Naturalist”:

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Of course, Yeats is the standard for any Irish poet and an impossible one at that, but it’s certain that Heaney was the greatest Irish poet since Yeats and one who belongs in the same pantheon with the postwar English master Philip Larkin. Heaney is one of the four Irishmen to receive a Nobel prize in literature along with Yeats, Shaw, and Beckett – rare company indeed.   His loss is a great one for poetry and for Ireland – for all of us really – but old men are destined to die as Yeats reminds us on his very tombstone.  

Nevertheless, like his hero Beowulf, Heaney will live on in his verse.

Personal Helicon

for Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells 

And old pumps with buckets and windlasses. 

I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells 

Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss. 

***

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top. 

I savoured the rich crash when a bucket 

Plummeted down at the end of a rope. 

So deep you saw no reflection in it. 

***

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch 

Fructified like any aquarium. 

When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch 

A white face hovered over the bottom. 

***

Others had echoes, gave back your own call 

With a clean new music in it. And one 

Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall 

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection. 

***

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime, 

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring 

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme 

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.


[1] Brown had also in his youth visited Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, so being in Brown’s presence put me a mere two degrees of separation from my heroes Joyce, Eliot, and Hemingway. You can read about Elizabeth Bishop’s visit to USC HERE.

[2] I witnessed a dual reading featuring Dickey and Lowell in 1974. Afterwards, I learned that Lowell detested Dickey, so there’s that.