Upon hearing the news yesterday of Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s death, I sent a note of condolence to poets Annie and Ted Deppe who live in Ireland. The Deppes invited me to a writing workshop near Dublin a few years ago.
“My first reaction,” I wrote, “on hearing the news of Seamus Heaney’s death was ‘how quickly can I get to Ireland.’ Something very old in me wailed at the news. Something salmonish needed to come home for the keening, the wake, the whiskey, the Mass, the sod. Thank you for all you’ve done to share the riches of Ireland and poetry with so many — especially with me.”
Kevin Cullen, a friend of Heaney’s, recalls a night with Heaney in Daedalus in Boston. A wonderful recollection and tribute. Here’s an excerpt from Kevin Cullen’s essay Walking on Air Against His Better Judgement, printed today in The Boston Globe:
When Seamus returned to his hometown after winning the Nobel Prize, Sean Brown presented him with a painting of Lough Beg, and the celebration, organized by Brown, was noteworthy because everybody, Protestant and Catholic alike, turned out to greet a local boy made good.
“He represented something better than we have grown used to, something not quite covered by the word ‘reconciliation’, because that word has become a policy word,” Seamus Heaney wrote in a tribute to his friend Sean Brown. “This was more like a purification, a release from what the Greeks called the miasma, the stain of spilled blood. It is a terrible irony that the man who organized such an event should die at the hands of a sectarian killer.”
I think of Seamus Heaney the same way. He represented something better than we have grown used to. He was, without doubt, as Robert Lowell said, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. But it’s only partially accurate to describe Heaney as an Irish poet, because while his Irishness informed his work and certainly his identity, he was a citizen and a poet of the world. For all his nationalism, he loved English poets. He loved Keats as much as Yeats. He believed that if countries were run by poets instead of politicians, we’d be much better off. He loved Vaclav Havel, the poet who led the Czechs to freedom, and he really loved Michael Higgins, Ireland’s current president and a poet of some regard himself.
And, it goes without saying, he loved above all his Marie, his wife. Marie and the land were the twin loves of his life, and his ode to Marie managed to evoke both of those loves:
Love, I shall perfect for you the child
Who diligently potters in my brain
Digging with heavy spade till sods were piled
Or puddling through muck in a deep drain.
Read the rest of Kevin Cullen’s essay in The Boston Globe.