White haired Irish poet in book-lined roomSeamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, died too soon. I had always been sure I would meet him one day. He was only 74. I thought there was plenty of time. I thought he still had years and years ahead of him, years rolling out like fields and peat bogs and country roads, years he would have filled with more of the wisdom and sudden epiphanies his poetry was so suffused with.

But he passed away two days ago – after a “brief (how lucky!) illness” – and I, like so many of his admirers, am left strangely bereft, wondering at the depth of this loss of a man I never did get to meet.

I spent yesterday reading the obituaries and appreciations in newspapers from around the world, re-reading many of my favorites of his poems and discovering new ones as friends (on Facebook and Twitter) posted their favorites. It was a strange, rueful sort of day. I always did think I would meet him.

But. Swimming in his poetry all day  led me to my own epiphany and that has led to this: Seven Ways of Thinking About Seamus Heaney. 

1. Whatever we say about his poetry will be limited. So let’s make sure to quote from it, to memorize it, to make it a part of our hectic inner lives, our dearest shreds of meaning, our little kites of joy.

Talking about it isn’t good enough
But quoting from it at least demonstrates
The virtue of an art that knows its mind.

2. Edmund Cluett, the man who introduced me to Seamus Heaney, traveled through India and Thailand with all his possessions on his back. He had to make stark decisions about what to carry and what to leave behind. He carried his copy of Heaney’s Seeing Things as an indispensable. One evening as he left my house, Edmund quoted the last lines (Heaney’s last lines were his glory, always) of a poem about his father, “foraging” through a tea-chest packed with salt for the hocks of bacon he had placed there for curing. I am a vegetarian, but Heaney (via Edmund) swept me away with the glory of those last lines and I can still see Edmund, standing in the doorway, his expression still amazed by the power of “blazed upon“:

That night I owned the piled grain of Egypt.
I watched the sentry’s torchlight on the hoard.
I stood in the doorway, unseen and blazed upon.

Because I, like Edmund, like any child of a father who provided and protected, understood the wealth of that moment.

3. Working all my life with kids with special needs, I have grown more and more suspicious of “perfection” – whatever that might mean. So I love these two couplets:

And then when he thought of probes that reached the
He would see the shaft of a pitchfork sailing past
Evenly, imperturbably through space,
Its prongs starlit and absolutely soundless —
But has learned at last to follow that simple lead
Past its own aim, out to an other side
Where perfection – or nearness to it – is imagined
Not in the aiming but the opening hand.

4.  Kids with special needs are always on my mind. Seamus Heaney’s poetry distills my lifetime of experience and the truths I have learned from these children, the unexpected and truly astonishing revelations to be had the very moment we are able to truly hear:

Upend the rain stick and what happens next 
Is a music that you never would have known 
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice–rush, spillage and backwash 
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe 
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales 
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes 
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies; 
Then glitter–drizzle, almost breaths of air. 
Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once, 
Twice, ten, a thousand times before. 
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus? 
You are like a rich man entering heaven 
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

5. There is so much hope and good sense and simplicity in Seamus Heaney:

When I came here first you were always singing,
a hint of the clip of the pick
in your winnowing climb and attack.
Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear.

“Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear.”

6. Yet oh, the confusions and the contradictions of living in two worlds! The things that add up in one world and make no sense in another; the assumptions that work on one side and perplex on the other; the ease of belonging, the jolt of acknowledging the distance traveled:

When I answered I came from ‘far away’,
The policeman at the roadblock snapped, ‘Where’s that?’
He’d only half-heard what I said and thought
It was the name of some place up the country.
And now it is – both where I have been living
And where I left – a distance still to go
Like starlight that is light years on the go
From far away and is light years arriving.

Seamus Heaney receiving the Nobel Prize, dressed in a tux, on a very grand stage

Far away: where we live and where we’ve left. These two realities define us and engulf us and Seamus Heaney – the farm boy who ended up in Sweden in a tuxedo, receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature – understood the conflict, the inspiration and the essential doubt.

Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed, 
Convert to things foreknown; 
And how what’s come upon is manifest

Only in light of what has been gone through.
Seventh heaven may be 
The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.

At any rate, when light breaks over me 
The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine 
Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried

And silver lamé shivered on the Bann 
Out in mid-channel between the painted poles, 
That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me.

The light has broken over him now and surely, this day, he is in his Seventh Heaven, in step at last with all that ever escaped him. Reading his poetry, it is clear that not much did.

Rest in Peace, Mr Heaney. I still expect to meet you one fine day.




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