Seamus Heaney died today and we are all poorer for that.
I’m not an intellectual, and don’t claim to understand great poetry. I can only feel it, and wonder in awe at the craft, and the intellect that created it. Over more years than I care to think, Seamus Heaney’s poetry has touched me deeply, again and again. Sometimes like a sledgehammer to the chest, and other times, prising open a long forgotten childhood memory of freshly caught mackerel pulled from the cold sea or a ripe blackberry already staining tiny fingers. He spoke to something deep within me, and gave me joy, solace, and lightening-bright insight in the commonplace.
Heaney was born in Co. Derry, deep in the Irish countryside. Here is an excerpt from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech describing his childhood:
In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.
You can read the full speech here: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1995/heaney-lecture.html
I met him in 2002 when he came to Montreal to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Concordia, and I still treasure the memory. He was the man we should all strive to be, warm and gracious, and ready to share a story with anyone.
He was a man who saw and felt more than the rest of us, a man for whom everything was alive and connected, a man from whom we can all learn. We are lucky to have been alive when this man was writing poetry.