On Seamus Heaney, Who Made Me Love Poetry

Seamus Heaney made me love poetry. There you have it, the schmaltz, right up top. But it is true, so I have to say it and today is as good a day as any to do so, because Seamus Heaney died while we were sleeping, at the age of 74. He was a teacher, a Nobel Laureate, and as you will surely read many times over in the coming days, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats and his swans.

Heaney was born in Toombridge, Northern Ireland and much of his work was set in and spoke of life in Ulster—the ancient region that encompasses what is now the politically divided northern portion of the Irish island. Before it was revised to read “Derry,” the BBC’s obituary for Heaney called the county of his birth “Londonderry,” the name for the area favored by the British. It was a fitting reminder of the contorted history of the region—“The Troubles,” the euphemistic name for the violence that shaped life in the North, found its epicenter in Derry. Or, “Free Derry,” as the wall would have it. Though his life was indelibly marked by the violence around him, Heaney’s poetry was never overshadowed by the commonplace carnage of his home; he wrote about blackberry picking and peat and pilgrimages, not because he was avoiding the politics, but because he honored life as it took place in the midst of it all.

Before I read Heaney, I liked poetry well enough, which is to say, I liked it as a little girl who loves to read knows she must like it—with polite interest while maintaining my fealty to prose. I appreciated the couplets that rhymed or the dirges that dirged as repetitious comforts whose verses were akin to that low humming you're supposed to make when you're nervous and need to be calmed.

But Heaney's stuff was none of that. It carved out new paths in my brain along which new synapses might fire, or perhaps it discovered ones that had gone unused from years of reading only novels.  I read what he wrote and I recognized exactly what he felt—not what he meant, but what he felt. And that is a great distinction, recognition of true feeling being the most intimate and disconcerting thing, especially when it came from someone I had never met. I think I feel for Seamus Heaney what Roberta Flack felt for that mysterious man and his song in “Killing Me Softly”; he understood and explained me in ways I had never even understood I needed to understand, not on one particular reading or in one poem alone, but through his many. I realized how a sparse phrase drenched in color and taste could burn on your memory like that ‘glossy purple clot’ from “Blackberry Picking”; knew it was true that if you love a place enough its very name is music, like the “soft gradient of consonant, vowel-meadow,” of “Anahorish”; how what a person wears on the day they change you will be their forever-wardrobe in the movie of your life, like that overcoat in “The Underground.

For all the bad rap that the poets get about being ornery, self-involved misanthropes, at their best, they bestow on us one of the greatest gifts—the idea that you are not alone, despite all physical evidence that might lead to the contrary conclusion. If you are a writer suffering from an awful block or anyone suffering from a case of incurable, lonely ambition (is there any other kind?), there is Keats who understands the agony that you might cease to be before your pen has glean’d your teaming brain; there is Milton, who knows as the tortured lovers do, that when in the presence of the object of your abject affections, you forget all time. And there is Heaney. Heaney, who wrote of vocation and duty—of the generation that could put words to the page with squat pens, elevated and enabled to do so because of the one that dug peat—and of love for home and human, of the forces that tie us to one another whether we like it or not. He wrote of death, to be sure, of murder, even, both ancient and contemporary, but it was never nihilistic. Nor was it naïve. Heaney saw past the ‘life is hard and then you die’ line of things, to the part where we find something good about the black rock we've all staked our claim on. Congratulations, his poetry always seems to say to me—you are human, and it is not all bad.