My hand is cramped from penwork,
My quill has a tapered point.
Its bird-mouth issues a blue-dark
Beetle-sparkle of ink.
Seamus Heaney, the most famous Irish poet since Yeats, died on Friday, 30 August, in Dublin. He was 74. This most renowned and much revered contemporary Irish poet was the author of many books of remarkable poetry, several collections of penetrating and astute essays, and numerous translations, including the New York Times best-selling bilingual verse translation of Beowulf (W. W. Norton, 2000), and two Greek plays, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” and The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ “Antigone.” His last book of poetry, Human Chain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), from which the stanza above is taken, a translation from an Old Irish poem, exhibits the same diamond-hard word-lore and mastery of metaphor that is the hallmark of all his poetry and for which he is universally admired. He never stinted his genius.
I had the great good fortune to be Seamus Heaney’s teaching assistant for two years at UC Berkeley, where we were not only colleagues but friends. I remember especially the excitement and illumination of his lectures and readings of poetry, and dinners at our respective homes with Seamus, Marie, and their two young sons, Michael and Christopher. I particularly recall a dinner at my apartment in Berkeley in May 1976, which I arranged to introduce Seamus and Robert Duncan for their first meeting. It was a hilarious and wild evening of wit, laughter and zany antics, topped off by Duncan extravagantly drinking wine from the red high heel shoe of another poet friend. When he first came to teach at Berkeley, Seamus had already published his much acclaimed first book, Death of a Naturalist (Oxford, 1966), whose title he wryly explained as a subversive attempt to attract readers of detective novels, and his equally praised Door into the Dark (Faber and Faber, 1969).
He was then writing Wintering Out (Faber and Faber, 1972), which he kindly permitted me to read in manuscript, while he also graciously read and discussed with me the manuscript of my second book of poems, Mediterranean Sonnets (North Atlantic Books, 1988). At that time, he warned me about the “pernicious influence of Pound,” an opinion which he apologetically withdrew some years later. In honor of our friendship and mutual respect, I dedicated to Seamus the last poem, “At the Wake,” in my third collection of poems, Only Emotion Endures (AuthorHouse, 2009).
Seamus’ acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, which he titled “Crediting Poetry,” shows his enduring imagination and comprehensive intellect couched in a simple metaphor, which he inhabits with such power and meaning that it “floods” and overwhelms the world. He recalls a bucket of water in the scullery of his childhood Irish home that vibrates in circles when a train passes or some outside motion of the external world intrudes. He says:
“I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world beyond. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival—whether in one’s poetry or one’s life—turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot. And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air.’”
He credits “poetry for making this space-walk possible,” he credits it for “instructing myself (and whoever else might be listening) to ‘walk on air against your better judgement.’ But I credit it ultimately because poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of a poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago.”
In this same speech, however, he also shows his pragmatic understanding of the uselessness of history and its consequences:
“It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power.”
What then, is the truth of poetry and its power? “The form of the poem, in other words,” he asserts, “is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”
This creditable power of poetry is everywhere evident in Seamus’ poetry throughout his career, such as “Mother of the Groom,” from Wintering Out:
What she remembers
Is the glistening back
In the bath, his small boots
In the ring of boots at her feet.
Hands in her voided lap,
She hears a daughter welcomed.
It’s as if he kicked when lifted
And slipped her soapy hold.
Once soap would ease off
The wedding ring
That’s bedded forever now
In her clapping hand.
In this seemingly simple poem, the mother’s wedding ring “slips” from her soapy finger to become an endless series of rings, from the “ring of boots at her feet,” to the ring of the cervix through which her and other children slip into the world, and the loops of rings that bind together past and future generations, even as her son has "slipped" through her hands.
Or this one, from Seeing Things (1991), number xii from the section titled “Lightenings”:
And lightening: One meaning of that
Beyond the usual sense of alleviation,
Illumination, and so on, is this:
A phenomenal instant when the spirit flares
With pure exhilaration before death—
The good thief in us harking to the promise!
So paint him on Christ’s right hand, on a promontory
Scanning empty space, so body-racked he seems
Untranslatable into the bliss
Arched for at the moon-rim of his forehead,
By nail-craters on the dark side of his brain:
This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.
At the Wake
To Seamus Heaney
A blue eye looks back
not again to see
her men or women.
Old Irish Poem
The seeds that Tollund man
Conserved for energy
Bagged in his leather
Gut, unsprung grains
Housed in close
Pouched cavity, pliable
Blossom death repeals,
Fisted in pain.
Eyes, socket free,
Night of peat
Blindness that seals
Moment of their wakening,
About his neck
Of craft of hearth affirm,
Of our interior.
At this wake
Our little wisdom try.