For Seamus Heaney – ‘Something Better Than We Have Grown Used To’

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
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.

One comment

  1. From Roselyn: I’ve been meaning to write you for years….ever since I met your parents and we roomed next to each other in a Notre Dame dormitory at a Bridgefolk meeting (I’m a Mennonite married to an Irish Catholic).

    But it took Seamus Heaney’s death to get me to finally let you know how much I appreciate your blog…the way you pull all the best websites together and make it easy for me to find them. I loved Kevin Cullen’s reminiscence as well as your own. I have “run into” Seamus Heaney twice–once in the 80’s in that wonderful poetry bookstore on Harvard Square when I barely knew who he was and just heard some students whispering his name and then 15 or so years later on one of our trips to Ireland. I had finally found my husband’s grandparents’ birth places up in the northwest tip of Co. Donegal and Heaney was speaking at a “summer school” for locals and tourist like us. That time we had a chance for a few minutes’ visit with him and Marie and I could tell one thing we had in common–we had both married Devlins. Selfishly, I was hoping for one more opportunity to meet him.

    Please give your parents my greetings….I’m the Mennonite from the midwest who married the Catholic from Boston/LA and moved with him to Hawaii 44 years ago this month.

    Keep up the good work w/ Sojourners.


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