On Friday I received the sad news that Seamus Heaney, one of my favorite poets, had recently died.
I first encountered Heaney’s work eight years ago in an AP Literature class. Over two semesters, our teacher—a vivacious, knowledgeable man who always fought for the best parts in our class readings of Shakespeare—steeped us in poetry. Insisting that “poetry isn’t always pretty,” he began our first lesson with Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” a graphic account of the poet’s experience as a soldier in World War I. We moved through John Donne, the Romantic poets, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and countless others – our glimpses of each poet ranging from single poems to groups of six or seven. When we arrived at Seamus Heaney, our teacher selected “Digging” and “The Forge.” He read them aloud in his sonorous way, with his natural proclivity for the native Irish inflections of the poet.
I liked Heaney’s unassuming, earthy style, and I liked his rhythms. I liked how, at the end of “Digging,”* Heaney chose the pen because he didn’t believe he could hold the shovel. Thinking of myself as a writer of only novels and dreaming of being a poet, I considered poetry a holy, untouchable craft. (I still consider poetry sacred, but now I choose to reach for it, rather than assume its touch will burn me.)
After this brief foray into Heaney’s work, I completed a ritual for the poets I enjoyed from AP Lit: I searched for Heaney online and read his poems “Blackberry-Picking” and “Song.” I loved what I found, but I didn’t think to purchase a book of his work. I considered my exposure to Heaney incidental; I didn’t think I needed to pursue his poetry beyond the rare moments when it chanced across my life.
The next time I saw Heaney’s name, I was picking up my books for a Periods of Early British Literature class in autumn, 2007. I was a sophomore with a vague idea of the booklist, and, rather than defaulting to the college bookstore, I found myself standing before Barnes & Noble’s shamefully small poetry section, trying to remember which copy of Beowulf I needed. My choices were limited to the stale and formulaic Barnes & Noble Classics edition (with its unromantic cover, thin pages, and spidery, faded font) or a flashy, stylish edition with a striking, high-contrast cover design. The soldier’s helmet emblazoned on the dark cover was textured; I could feel the “metal” links beneath my fingers. The book was sturdy, almost square-shaped, with the Old English verses on the left and the Modern English translation on the right. The translator of course was Heaney. I recognized his name, but I didn’t realize the significance of his work. When I studied Old English three years later, I developed a profound appreciation for Heaney’s translation—I recognized the level of linguistic knowledge and marveled at the intense poetic labor needed for this task.
My English teachers continued to shape my interactions with Heaney’s work. What began in AP Lit intensified throughout three courses taught by Dr. Rae: Early British Literature, Linguistics, and Poetry & Poetics. Katie and I took these courses, and together we fell in love with Heaney’s poetry. Sitting side-by-side in cramped desks, we poured over his poems—inebriated with delight and desperate to show Dr. Rae that we could interpret Heaney as brilliantly as she did.
However, our professor’s most significant gift came outside the classroom, on an enjoyable but poignant evening. Before she transferred to another university, she wanted to have dinner with us. We sat down to Thai food and ginger-pear martinis in an elegant, dim restaurant, and Dr. Rae handed each of us two identical books: a copy of a journal in which one of her poems was published and a copy of Seamus Heaney’s 1995 Nobel Prize Lecture, “Crediting Poetry.”
My edition of “Crediting Poetry” was small and square, a hardcover with dust jacket and thick pages. In the lecture, Heaney articulated his history with poetry—how poetry expresses all human conditions and validates our vulnerabilities. He wrote, “I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.” For Heaney, poetry is a way of keeping your humanity in a turbulent world, for processing and understanding your experiences, for anchoring yourself and your values.
Dr. Rae’s gift has become a treasured possession, one that I share with students as often as I can. Heaney’s lecture overflows with poetic images and manipulations of time and space, blurring the line between poetry and prose. Its form alone earns it a place on my course syllabus. And if students grasp even a vague impression of its message, I know I’ve done them a service.
I started to purchase Heaney’s work on my own, and I continued to receive Heaney’s poetry as gifts from Katie. Each gift commemorates our shared enthusiasm for the poet and our history with his work – a history that resonates with all our classroom epiphanies. During my last and most difficult semester of grad school, Katie presented me with a box of anti-stress goodies, and Heaney’s 2011 collection, Human Chain. When we heard about his death, we read Human Chain aloud together.
Heaney’s “Sunlight” was the first poem I ever read in braille. I’ve written extensively on my very brief experience of braille poetry—on the struggles and joys of deciphering a single word and realizing its poetic significance, on the ability to finally read poetry outside, on being able to spend so much time laboring over Heaney’s words. I still keep my braille copy of Heaney’s North on a shelf in my office, waiting for the perfect combination of sunshine, autumn breezes, and free time.
The remarkable thing about writing is that it softens the blow of hardship and separation. Poetry has often helped me through extreme difficulties—the death of a friend who was more like a sister, the distance of a thousand miles between my beloved friend and myself, the terrifying waves of doubt that come when any chapter of my life closes and the pages of a new one start to turn. Perhaps this is why I don’t feel desolate about Seamus Heaney’s passing. I must relinquish the far-fetched dream that I’ll meet him in some exclusive yet earthy poetry workshop—the fantasy that he’d shake my hand and say something brief and beautiful about my work. I have to let go of the sorrow that rises each time I think, “He’ll never release another collection.” Katie and I won’t be rushing to the bookstore in search of his latest volume of lectures or poems. He won’t win any more prizes or deliver any more lectures. But he has left us—left me—with so much to explore. Several volumes of his poetry and prose sit on my shelves, in braille and in print, and I have read only a fraction of them. Even his recent book of collected poems doesn’t contain all his work.
Seamus Heaney’s is not an easy loss to bear, but I believe that his poetry will do what poetry always does. It will, as Heaney wrote, be “itself and…a help.” I am thankful that he trusted so much to poetry and left us so many poems in which to trust.
* I recommend that you listen to Heaney read “Digging” aloud. The link is just above the text of the poem.