Irish poet Seamus Heaney holds court with a group of Bowdoin College students at the college’s pub during his visit to Brunswick for a reading in 1986 of the then recently published collection of poems “Station Island.”
Surfing the car radio while driving on Interstate 90 across the state of New York, my heart skipped a beat, then sank, upon hearing an NPR news broadcaster announce, “Seamus Heaney, acclaimed by many as the best Irish poet since Yeats, has died, the BBC and other news outlets are reporting …”
The Aug. 30 broadcast noted Heaney was 74 and had been in ill health. Few other details were provided, except to say Heaney’s publisher, Faber & Faber, had confirmed the news. It haunted me the rest of the drive to Cleveland.
I met Heaney a long time ago, in 1986, when he came to Brunswick to give a poetry reading at Bowdoin College. I was a reporter for the hometown newspaper and I’d called the college hoping to land an interview with the Irish poet. I’d been reading his poems since the late 1970s, when, as an English major at the University of Southern Maine, I had purchased “Poems, 1965-1975,” a collection drawn from his first four books of poetry, “Death of a Naturalist,” “Door Into the Dark,” “Wintering Out” and “North.” More so than the poems of William Butler Yeats, Heaney’s poetry put me in touch with my Irish heritage, rooted as it was in the very activities my Irish forebears would have engaged in as small farmers in County Sligo and County Mayo: the hard labor of digging potatoes and cutting turf and tending cattle in fields that were one step removed from being bogland. Poem by poem, often with knotted brow, I strove to discern the meaning of poetic images he conveyed by means of a word hoard far richer than my own, containing words rooted in older languages than modern English, words of the countryman, words spot-on in meanings both literal and metaphoric.
Heaney was not quite as famous as he would become upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, but he was well on his way to reaching that pinnacle when I requested a sit-down interview with him. He could easily have begged off, citing any number of reasons I would have accepted … largely because I knew The Times Record, having a circulation of only 10,000 in 19 communities within Maine’s mid-coast region, could hardly register with him as a “must-do” interview.
But Heaney agreed to meet with me, and when I arrived at our appointed interview location — a professor’s office or some other quiet nook in one of the college’s 19th century buildings — he was smiling, immediately putting me at ease with his easy open manner. He wore a tweed jacket, with black denim pants, a striped light-gray shirt and a wide tie. His eyes were dark, alternately piercing and twinkling with mirth. His graying hair was not quite as windswept and wild-looking as it appeared in the portrait taken in his younger years that graced the back cover of his 1975 collected poems. But it was wild enough and he referenced it during our interview when I asked him about the caricature by David Levine accompanying a recent New York Times review of his latest poetry book, “Station Island,” published in 1985.
Laughing, Heaney told he didn’t mind Levine’s exaggerations, saying: “I thought my chin was too big …I thought I looked more like Conor Cruise O’Brien. But one is always flattered to be caricatured by David Levine. I just wished he had the right photograph to work from … The hair was right, though.”
In that reply, and, indeed throughout the interview, Heaney was down-to-earth, at ease, not taking himself too seriously … but giving me, a complete stranger, the courtesy of straight answers to honest questions. There was no hint of caginess or wariness whatsoever. He didn’t even ask for a quick summary of my credentials for doing the interview. It seemed sufficient enough to him that I had expressed an interest in meeting him and talking about his poetry.
He generously gave me a half hour or more of his time on a cold winter’s afternoon. In doing so, he deepened my understanding of not only his work as a poet but also any writer’s work … if one aspires, as he clearly did, to dig deeply into one’s life and times. Without making any big deal of it, Heaney offered lessons of conscience, teaching me, a fledgling journalist, that writing is both a personal and communal endeavor that requires tough-minded self-honesty, diligence and an unflagging openness to others … and courage.
“I think, in general, that poets begin wanting to be sure they can write poems,” he said in reply to my opening question asking about the movement in his books from childhood memories and personal experience to historical themes and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. “And then, the second stage is asking, ‘To what end am I writing?’ In other words, there is a certain kind of morality that enters in upon the merely aesthetic. I think there is a danger if too much moral pressure is put upon the aesthetic — but it is a balance.”
“So, indeed, the early poems are personal memories and, on the whole, autobiographical. The poems are attempting to make little epiphanies — or, little holding areas for experience. But I think, by and by, by the time it comes to ‘Wintering Out’ and ‘North,’ the third and fourth books, there is an attempt to make one’s personal experience somehow more representative, first of all, of the situation in Ireland. And, of course, those books were written at a time when there was more upheaval going on in the society any way.”
During the interview, Heaney spoke of the recent translation he did of the medieval Irish narrative poem “Buile Suibhne,” which his version titled “Sweeney Astray.” In retelling the legend of the Northern Ireland king Sweeney, who is cursed by a Christian cleric named Ronan to a life on the run, — a mad outcast who lives on watercress and water and traverses the length and breadth of Ireland, driven often by his adversaries to the tops of trees, like a bird — Heaney told me he felt a certain affinity to the naked and forlorn Sweeney who’s never at home in his own land:
“Part of my intent in doing ‘Sweeney Astray’ was to proclaim — obliquely — that Ulster was ‘Irish’ as well as being politically ‘British.’ I wanted to go behind and underneath the 17th century Plantation … as if an ‘Indian’ were to discover a work of literature written in the Massachusetts area in the 12 century and translate it so the word name ‘Massachusetts’ wouldn’t be just a colonial possession; it would be affirmed as a ‘native’ possession before that.
“Sweeney is from Ulster. He’s from County Antrim. He’s a king of the territory, Irish-speaking and aboriginal. He is also displaced from his territory. So I had a certain personal identification with him, since I was living at the time I was doing this in County Wicklow [in the Republic of Ireland]. And feeling displaced, a little bit. I mean, growing up as a Catholic in the North, you knew you ‘belonged’ and yet you weren’t part of the dominant, established ethos: You didn’t belong. You belonged and you didn’t belong, at the same time.”
In reading the transcript of that interview I’m struck by how easily Heaney moved from self-deprecating humor to incredibly personal and deep self-revelations. He was wide open in his honesty; he made it seem as natural as breathing. There was no pretense of self importance, no pontificating, no impatience in answering questions he undoubtedly had been asked a many times before by more knowledgable and skilled interviewers.
I could have listened to him for hours, but Heaney had a scheduled meeting with some students that had been lined up for him by the college. He apologized for having to cut short the interview … and then invited me to join him for a beer at the college pub where the students would be meeting him.
In that generous invitation I felt a kind of benediction. Once again, Heaney had made me an equal, someone with whom he’d be happy to raise a pint. He reinforced those feelings as we walked together across the college campus and he asked me what poets I might be reading. I told him “Derek Walcott” and “Gary Snyder.” He nodded and said both were worthy of my time. He told me he appreciated Walcott’s poetry for its assimilation of Caribbean, European and African cultures and language. I told him I’d seen once, on stage at Cleveland’s Karamu Theater, a performance of Walcott’s “Dream on Monkey Mountain” and understood little of it but liked it nonetheless. He smiled and acknowledged Walcott could be tricky to understand, but was always worth the effort. I asked him who he was reading at that time and he mentioned the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and the exiled Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky. I made a mental note to check them out, since I had not read a single word of either poet at that point in my life.
Once we got to the pub, both of us grabbed our beers and I drifted back to the sidelines where I watched Heaney take questions from the students who were assembled there to meet with him. He grinned, engaging them with questions of his own. He showed them every bit the same warm-hearted openness he’d shown me during our half-hour interview together.
Later, during his reading that evening, you could have heard a pin drop when Heaney recited a poem from the “Station Island” series of Dante-like imagined conversations with the shades of various friends, heroes, family members. In the poem, he encounters the shade of a murdered friend, a Catholic pharmacist who in the middle of the night had been called out of bed, where he’d been sleeping with his wife. His killers were two off-duty policemen who shot him point-blank in the head when he opened the door in response to their urgent call for “pills or a powder or something in a bottle” for “a child not well.” The poem ends with Heaney’s confession to his slain friend, a victim of sectarian violence:
“‘Forgive the way I have lived indifferent –
forgive my timid circumspect involvement,’
I surprised myself by saying. ‘Forgive
my eye,’ he said, ‘all that’s above my head.’
And then a stun of pain seemed to go through him
and he trembled like a heatwave and faded.”
In that one poem Heaney brought each of us into the time and place of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, where violence by both Protestant and Catholics cut lives short — all for senseless reasons that simply fueled more violence, more tragedies, more trouble. It also challenged us to consider, in our own lives, the injustices that we might be timidly avoiding or kidding ourselves by “circumspect involvement” that we were doing something to end those injustices.
Even now, 25 years later, I remember Heaney’s words of self-reproach … and realize how truly they speak to my own human condition.
So, without asking it of me but it’s there nonetheless, I owe a debt to Seamus Heaney.
In the quarter century since our one and only meeting, I’ve faithfully purchased each new collection of his poetry. I never failed to find within those slim volumes important mileposts of his human journey, experiences both personal and universal. Heaney, with his gift for poetry and his faithful and honest attention to the people and places and experiences of his life, had so generously shared those epiphanies with the rest of us that we might gain something useful, some small wisdom, to help us through our own days.
In his last published collection, “Human Chain,” many of the poems reflect on mortality – a theme, no doubt, inspired by the poet’s near brush following a severe stroke in 2006. In the poem “Miracle,” Heaney retells the well-known story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man in Capernaum, a healing that takes place only after the crippled man is lowered through a hole cut into the roof into the crowded room where Jesus is teaching. Heaney makes a persuasive case that the Gospel version of the healing miracle doesn’t tell the whole story. Here’s the poem in its entirety — a reminder that we should be mindful, always, of the heroism of daily life, a miracle we sometimes overlook as we look to the heavens for our salvation.
Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in —
Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let-up
Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight light-headedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.