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My Memories of Seamus Heaney

Getty Images/AFP/Jan Collsioo

Seamus Heaney’s funeral in Dublin was televised live, marking an event that occupied the front pages in Ireland for several days. In his eulogy of the poet, Paul Muldoon told the story of being asked at Customs, on his arrival for the funeral, what he did for a living; when he replied that he taught poetry, the Customs officer said, “You must be devastated.” No need to say why: the loss of the poet was felt everywhere. He had visited schools and given readings in almost every corner of the country, often for nothing; thousands of people had seen him on television, or had read of the Nobel Prize. The bleak fact that there would be no next volume of his poetry was a grief to his readers, but even those who knew his work best were mourning the man as much as the poet.

Seamus established an immediate intimacy even with strangers. The eldest of nine children, he could be anyone’s older brother. A quick understanding and quiet help arose naturally in him. He had a ready humor: I once took a cab in Cambridge a day after Seamus’s departure to Oxford, and the driver said: “I had a very witty man in the cab yesterday.” You couldn’t meet Seamus without seeing how unusual he was in perception and how rapidly he took in another person. At Harvard, he and I had both taught an exceptionally gifted student who died young. His student friends asked me if perhaps Seamus could send some words to be read at the memorial service. I left the message for Seamus in Dublin, and in a few hours found a return message with a tender paragraph about the student. The kindness was typical; but what arrested me, when I heard that description on my voice mail, was its uncanny accuracy. He had taught the student several years earlier, but it was as though he could lift from memory a photographic scan of the student and, by a sort of alchemy, “read it off” into factual and touching statement. I realized then that Seamus “scanned” people in a clairvoyant way, realizing their faculties of mind and temperament instantly and deeply.

It was that scanning, putting feeling into words, which distinguished Seamus’s portraits of human beings. In his poem “Mid-Term Break” (recalling, years later, the death of his four-year-old brother, hit by a car), he is an adolescent sitting at the wake next to his mother, who “coughed out angry tearless sighs.” The phrase gives me, by its convincing oddity, the absolute joy that art provides. “Cough”: an uncontrollable spasm of the throat; “anger”: an outward-going fierce resentment; “tearless”: a violent suppression of the body’s natural response; “sigh”: a declining volume of breath, yes, but when coupled with “angry” a self-propelling protesting ungovernable exhalation, rising upward again as soon as it dies away. Around the unforgettable past scan of his mother’s anguished voicelessness, words—“cough,” “anger,” “tearless,” “sigh”—begin to cluster in the poet’s mind, translating the buried scan into language. Heaney’s particular mosaic of words preserves the unique, complex, and unrepeatable contour of human emotion: “what we felt at what we saw,” as Stevens put it. Such a run of words tells the human tale in the way it is lived: moment by moment. Forgettable poems cannot delineate the uniqueness of the moment: their language is half cliché, ruining itself as it goes.

And so, volume by volume, decade by decade, Heaney translated feelings in resonant word-clusters. For “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland: “neighborly murders.” For early marriage: “the lovely and painful / Covenants of flesh... / The respite in our dewy dreaming faces.” For expressing his chosen but unnatural distance from his native North when he moved to the Republic: “I am neither internee nor informer; / an inner émigré.” After his mother’s death: “A soul ramifying and forever / Silent, beyond silence listened for.” For the destruction of the Twin Towers: “Anything can happen.” And in the course of a long career, around the clusters there clustered more clusters, until a constellation, and then in time a galaxy, shone from the assembled poems, making up what we call a poet’s style.

Courtesy of Helen Vendler
Seamus Heaney in Samuel Pepys's chair, Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1995.

Heaney’s own style went through many changes while remaining recognizable across time. Brought up a Catholic, he was no longer a believer as an adult, but he also remarked that one cannot forget the culture in which one was raised. He attended no church, but by his own wish was buried at a Catholic Mass: there is no other way to bury someone from the Catholic tradition in Ireland. The readings reflected the poet’s multiple debts to foundational texts: the Hebrew Bible (“Let us now praise famous men,” “a time to be born and a time to die,” the twenty-third psalm); and the New Testament (“the greatest of these is charity”). The gospel of the day included Jesus’s reassurances concerning the fall of the sparrow and the lilies of the field. The homilist of the removal ceremony the night before had invoked Irish legend, reading part of Seamus’s poem on St. Kevin and the blackbird, a parable of saintly human kindness. The funeral music (except for the organ of the liturgy) was provided by Liam O’Flynn’s uilleann pipes, playing minor-key melodies of Irish lament. A solo cello at the end played Brahms’s lullaby. Although the sorry English of the new Biblical translation of “The Lord is my shepherd” marred the reading of that psalm, the other Biblical texts were read in the traditional English of the Douay Bible, keeping the dignity of language in view. Peter Fallon read Heaney’s beautiful poem “The Given Note,” about a violinist composing an air: it concerns the aspect of art that seems not made but rather bestowed “out of the night”:

So whether he calls it spirit music

Or not, I don’t care. He took it

Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.

Still, he maintains, from nowhere.

It comes off the bow gravely,

Rephrases itself into the air.

Paul Muldoon gave a heartfelt account of the man and the poetry; Michael Heaney ended the ceremony with an offering of thanks to all mourners on the part of the family, and a eulogy of Seamus as husband and father.

In short, the readings were as mixed as Heaney himself, and the chosen music was secular (not liturgical or hymnic) played on two instruments—one from the folk tradition and one from the classical orchestra. It was a sober funeral, with the family—Marie Heaney, Michael, Catherine, and Christopher—in the first row of the pews, patiently shaking hands with hundreds of mourners at the end of the service. A public funeral, with the president and the Taoiseach in attendance, and the video cameras everywhere. A private funeral, with Heaney’s two sons and two of his brothers among the pallbearers. An austere funeral, with a single spray of white flowers on the coffin.

All of this, too, seemed to match Heaney’s poetry—so often private in family poems, but public in poems about the torment in the North; so often opulent in language (like the Biblical readings), so often plain (like the parables). Heaney spoke often about poetry, but his most memorable gloss on the function of poetry in public life comes from the account in the Gospel of John of the woman taken in adultery. When the crowd is about to take up stones to kill her, Jesus intervenes in a strange way: without saying a word, Jesus bends and with a finger writes something (never identified) on the ground. For Heaney, that gesture resembles the intervention that poetry, too, can make. A pause inserted in the violence that redefines the situation: violence is silently averted and, as Jesus then says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” the scribes and Pharisees, “convicted by their own conscience,” depart, one by one. Heaney comments, in an essay called “The Government of the Tongue”:

The drawing of those characters [by Jesus] is like poetry, a break with the usual life but not an absconding from it. Poetry, like the writing, is arbitrary.... it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.

Heaney’s remarks on poetry often draw the contrast between art and propaganda, but at least as often they insist that the motive of creation is joy in the play with language and rhythm. With Mandelstam, he believed that any achieved poem is a symbol of free will. The Eastern European poets writing out of a coercive political environment—especially Czesław Miłosz—heartened him in his central resolve to hew to the law of poetry, not to the law of political statement. But his clusters of constellated words became—in their exemplary refusal to coarsen morality—a political force nonetheless.

“My last things will be first things slipping from me,” he wrote in “Mint.” He chose to be buried in the North, near the graves of his mother and father in a country churchyard. Posterity will take care of the poetry. 

Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (Belknap Press). She is a contributing editor at The New Republic.