Sometimes you can take great artists and writers for granted if they stay around and productive for a very long time. They can become monuments to themselves in our minds, part of the landscape we navigate by perhaps, but the original, transformative, impact and achievement become forgotten, implicit. (Or, in some cases, form an implicit rebuke to their later work.)
Then they’re suddenly gone and the loss sadly, paradoxically, gives you them back again. So it is with Seamus Heaney who died today.
The passion in the many tributes I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter from other poets flows from both the power of his poetry, and the man himself, his unassuming, interested, warm and rooted nature and desire to connect to the people he met. His work has all kinds of importance, as the work of a rural boy exploring the world, as a translator, as an Irishman in Troubled times, and he was also a very fine love poet.
If anything, Heaney’s book of essays The Government of the Tongue was even more important to me personally as a guide as I set out to learn to write. His explorations of the tension between Song and Suffering were powerful influences. I’m not sure there’s a better summing up of what I think a poem can be than this, from his essay ‘Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac and a Knocker’:
‘The achievement of a poem, after all, is an experience of release. In that liberated moment, when the lyric discovers its buoyant completion and the timeless formal pleasure comes to fullness and exhaustion, something occurs which is equidistant from self-justification and self-obliteration. A plane is – fleetingly – established where the poet is intensified in his being and freed from his predicaments. The tongue, governed for so long in the social sphere by considerations of tact and fidelity, by nice obeisances to one’s origin within the minority or the majority, this tongue is suddenly ungoverned and, while not being practically effective, is not necessarily inefficacious.’
The first time I saw him read was at a poetry festival in Grasmere. I found myself sat behind him at one of the other readings that weekend, and spent the reading mainly thinking ‘That’s the back of Seamus Heaney’s head…’ I’m not entirely sure I can even remember who the poet was…
I was lucky enough to meet him a couple of times later on, the last time in 2009 when he read in Newcastle at the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts. The University held a reception for him, and I was, I think, just one of many there rather holding their breath and wondering why we were sharing the room with one of our genuine, ageless, Elders. The NCLA had put together a book for him, which they’d very kindly (not to say generously) asked me to contribute to, and I recall the contributors being asked to sign a copy for him. I have rarely felt such a mixture of pride and absurdity.
The video above is not of the reading he gave that night, though that can be seen here. I preferred to share this older event because of the discussion of Patrick Kavanagh’s distinction between provincialism and parochialism he begins with, before reciting Kavanagh’s ‘Epic’ and because of the introduction, which says more than I can here about his poetry. He may write no more, but to quote Heaney himself, when we read his work, or listen to him read, ‘We still believe what we hear.’