Seamus Heaney has been a hero of mine for as long as I can remember.

I was due to see him read in London towards the end of January 2013. I did not make it, as my sister died that night. Over the years, the same sister gave me many of Heaney’s poetry collections, and more recently, the glorious gift of the audio collection, read by the poet himself.

So much that I can relate to in terms of the personal impact of Seamus Heaney, the man and his words, has been movingly and eloquently said and re-said over the past days.

I have little to add apart from a few brief thoughts…

The poem Mid-Term Break has always been a favourite of mine. Written many years after the tragic death of Heaney’s younger brother, the poem, as written by the adult, convincingly captures the voice and the imagination of the child Heaney, as he recounts the event as if he were contemporaneously experiencing it.

from Mid-Term Break

‘I sat all morning in the college sick bay

Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying –

He had always taken funerals in his stride –

And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram

When I came in, and I was embarrassed

By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.

Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,

Away at school, as my mother help my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.’

‘…I saw him

For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.’

I love Heaney’s prose, which I first encountered through the essay ‘Feeling into Words’. In it, the poet talks about Digging, the first poem where he felt his feelings had truly got into the text, ‘where I thought my feel had got into words.’

from Digging

‘Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.’

With characteristic humility, Heaney dismissed Digging as a ‘coarse-grained navvy of a poem’, its interest mainly lying in its success in ‘finding a voice’, and arriving at that place where ‘you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them’.

I have just re-read Heaney’s wonderful Nobel Lecture, Crediting Poetry. Here, Heaney credits poetry ‘both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative  between the mind’s centre and its circumference…’for its truth to life…’

In a TV profile that included a series of interviews with the poet in 2009, Heaney was asked about his views on death. He replied that his attitude towards his own mortality had eased with age, and that any sense of fear in particular had gradually diminished. Prescient perhaps of his final words to his wife Marie before he died last week, ‘Noli temere’, which translates as ‘Don’t be afraid’.

Heaney’s poem A kite for Michael and Christopher ends with the phrase ‘long-tailed pool of grief’. Prescient again, on this occasion of a nation’s sense of loss.

We no longer have the man. Yet we do have the words, so many words, which he chose to share. A lasting comfort, of sorts.

CQ

Advertisements