It is so hard to speak of Seamus Heaney in the past tense. I met him twice and so could never claim his friendship. However, I was of that generation who caught the tail of Heaney’s star and so was taken up by the tracery of his verse. I read each published collection and in this way I came to know him intimately. To steal a line from him, I ‘shouldered a kind of manhood’ in digesting his poems.
For, intimacy lies at the core of Heaney’s poetry. Many have spoken of his gentility, geniality and graciousness. The physical presence of his poetry was made tangible in the readings he gave, his living voice courtly, yet confidential. Irish poets know well that they swim in the slipstream of the old bards, those mellifluous conjurers of metre, who could make or break a chieftain’s reputation. Heaney took on the bardic role in troubled times. The physicality of his poetry cupped the agonies and terrors of the 70’s and 80’s.
For Heaney knew the hard sharps of Irish life. The grudging, gossiping, gombeens – The linguistic grenades of tribe and place – The calls to arms – The intimate killings – The flashes of country laughter. All these are flints in his gentle voice.
He was more approachable, more knowable than Yeats, and so wore the bardic mantle with more authenticity and less pose. Quiet simply, he became the most popular, most widely read English speaking poet of his time.
However, his greatest gift, indeed that for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize was his translation of Beowulf. This came around the time of peace process in Ireland and speaks of a graciousness of the highest order, a truly great gesture; an Irish nationalist poet translating the primal poem of the English.
I have a letter from him replying to my request for some of his poems for the magazine. The letter states ‘sadly the cupboard is bare.’ In return I wish I could have told him that he has stocked all our larders to the brim with poems that give furtherance and restoration.
Ar Dheis De go raibh an anam – May his honour rest at God’s right hand.
By Steven O’Brien