How do I even begin to tell you how sad my soul is tonight? My heart aches, literally and metaphorically, inside my chest. The world has lost the greatest poet of our time, Seamus Heaney, a man who wove words into loamy imagery, rich with compost and earthy things that reached for scope of sky. Heaney wrote of the conflict in Northern Ireland, in poetry, with great artistry. In prose, he wrote of “the government of the tongue” and spoke up for freedom of speech, for poets and writers. He wrote of blackberries on bushes, of bog people who held secrets from centuries past, and of love and loss. Mostly, though, the music and song of his words were what drew me to his work, and to his spirit. When my alarm went off this morning, to hear CBC radio announce his death, I shot to the side of the bed in a stupor. How could this happen? At 74? He would be my mother’s age, had she lived past 2008. So many words are lost now….so many evocative stories and tales of how Ireland (and poetry) came to be, through bloodshed, through language, through love, through peace. I feel as if I have lost my poetic father…and there is a void that will certainly not be filled in my lifetime.
Later, this afternoon, I actually wept for the loss of him. He has traveled with me throughout my life, from my early twenties until now, at the age of nearly 43, so that his words have walked with me every day. This may sound melodramatic, and I can see how it would sound like that, but I have loved Seamus Heaney and his words since about 1992 or 1993, when I was 21 or 22. I stumbled across his work in a modern poetry class taught by Dr. Laurence Steven, at Laurentian University, here in Sudbury, Ontario. There were just a couple of poems in some anthology or another (Norton, likely, as Norton was the Bible in lit classes). My last year at Laurentian, finishing my English degree, I did a thesis on the poetry of W. B. Yeats, an earlier Irish poet. As I read about Yeats, I learned more about Heaney. When I was accepted to do a Master’s degree in English literature at Carleton University, in Ottawa, in 1994-95, I knew that I wanted to do my research and writing on Heaney’s work, specifically the poems that were gathered in the wonderfully evocative collection titled North. I worked with a great professor, Dr. Jack Healy, who met with me every Friday at 3pm (“crucifixion time” is what he called it!) to go over my most recent research and writing about Heaney’s poems. Healy spoke my language and understood my fascination with Heaney’s poems. He encouraged it; he fanned the flames, even. For that, I will be forever grateful.
Being a poet, I tend to read poems on a daily basis, even if it’s just one or two in passing…to buoy me up to face the day. Heaney’s books sit on an antique dresser in my new home. I am especially fond of his bog poems, as well as the Northern Ireland poems, but I do love the work of a more recent collection, published in 1996, titled The Spirit Level. I have two favourite poems in that collection, “The Rain Stick” and “Postscript.” I also have a cassette tape of Heaney reading all of these poems, so when I want to hear his wonderful voice, I pop it in the stereo system and let him ‘speak to me.’
Imagine my excitement when I met Heaney in a pub in Sligo, Ireland, last summer. I was upset that I couldn’t go to his reading that night, but I knew (somehow) that he was in that pub. You can read the earlier blog entry from last summer if you want a fuller, more detailed recollection of that serendipitous and divinely-inspired meeting, but just know that when I looked him in the eyes, all I could utter was a reverent “Hello”….to which he replied, with a bright wide smile, ”Hello.” I could have died just then….I was so overcome by just having exchanged that too simple greeting with him….but now I wish that I had had the presence of mind to have taken a photo with him. I was just so shocked to have met him in person that day that I literally lost my voice and logical mind. Afterwards, I couldn’t stop shaking and crying. I meant to write him this past year and tell him about the encounter, and maybe I will still write to his wife and family to tell them the story, but I didn’t write the letter….and I wish now I had. (Why is it that we put off what we should do today much too often? We never think someone will vanish, that they likely will not ever know how much they meant to us….)
Why, you wonder, would a poet mean so much to me? I’ve only met him once, so very briefly, but his words are written on my heart. I have never been so inspired by another poet, although Margaret Atwood comes close in her poetic work. Yeats, of course, well, that goes without saying! Yeats and Heaney were my poetic passions and still are. When I was at Carleton, one of my fellow students gave me the nickname “Modern Irish” because of my fascination with modern Irish poetry and literature. It stuck.
I miss him already….although I only know him through the heart he shared in his words, in his poems. I can’t tell you how my heart aches….but I will leave you with this beautiful poem.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Rest in peace, great poet….I will miss you.