The grand old man of Irish poetry who had a boyish openness to life

by John Boland

Among many evenings spent in the company of Seamus Heaney, whether occasions of convivial chat over a pint or at events of more earnest literary import, one in particular stands out. It was in the late 1990s, the venue was an elegant upstairs room in Westland Row that belonged to the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and Seamus was reciting a poem from memory.

It wasn’t one of his own, which he always recited affectingly in that lovely sonorous rural Derry brogue of his, but rather Keats’ great ‘Ode to Autumn’. He faltered once or twice during the recitation but, prompted by an encouraging audience (who had the text in their hands), he got through triumphantly to the end, which was accompanied by much applause.

It was typical of Seamus that, an hour after the formalities had ended, he was still there (accompanied, as always, by his beloved wife Marie), chatting, joking and listening to anybody, young or old, who wished to bend his ear. The poetry might sometimes have been starkly rigorous, even at times coolly distant, but the man himself was always entirely accessible, with an infectiously boyish openness to life and to the multitudes of people he met down through the decades (even if this openness was tempered by an innate reticence and reserve that had him silently evaluating, though seldom judging, those to whom he was talking).

His status that night as recently elevated grand old man of Irish poetry (he had become a Nobel laureate two years previously) seemed at odds with the person who, not yet 60 then, was bearing that heavy burden. Indeed, as he grew older his personality always seemed too young for his actual years.

Along with the openness, he was also a great encourager, especially to younger poets. Paul Muldoon has recalled sending early, unpublished poems to Seamus with the request that his famous elder tell him what was wrong with them. “Nothing,” came the reply.

Soon after he won the Nobel award, I bumped into him one afternoon in South Anne Street and we repaired to Kehoe’s pub, where he gently but insistently berated me for not fulfilling my promise as a young poet whom he had encouraged years earlier and whose verses he had published in a magazine he edited. “Put a book together”, he advised and then replied with enthusiasm to the manuscript I sent him, even to the extent of lending his approving words to the resultant book’s cover.

If he had ever needed such approval himself, it wasn’t obvious because his first collection, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, published when he was 27, had an assurance suggesting a man who knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it.

It conjured up a rural world that was often harsh but that was filtered through an exact and exacting eye and a humane imagination – not least in those poems that quickly became anthology pieces, such as ‘Digging’ and ‘Follower’.

There were instant classics, too, in the second collection, ‘Door Into the Dark’ (1969), but already he was widening both his concerns and his range. These extended even further in subsequent volumes, where personal lyrics took second place to considerations of the roots and nature of Northern violence.

This led in some quarters to accusations of pro-republican bias, and indeed when some of his poems were included in the ‘1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry’, he shot off a squib: “My passport’s green./No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen”. Yet in his poem, ‘The Flight Path’, he’s asked by an IRA sympathiser “When, for f***’s sake, are you going to write/Something for us?”, and he replies “If I do write something,/Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself”.

And so he always did, and in that inimitable poetic voice that snared a wide readership not normally available to poetry. Indeed, from the start, Heaney’s immediate popular success overshadowed that of the other Irish poets of his generation, and that never changed in the decades that followed – he has loomed over modern Irish poetry just as Patrick Kavanagh did a generation earlier and WB Yeats a generation before that.

The worry over the Nobel award was that the fame inevitably attendant on it would somehow come to affect the poetry that was yet to come – that a kind of deadening self-consciousness would creep into its making – but that was to underestimate both the man and the poet. The poems in ‘The Spirit Level’ (1996), had a bracing clarity and a thrilling passion, not least in the lovely final poem, ‘Postscript’, which concerns a drive along the coast of Clare, where:

big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Indeed, there’s a sense in his later work of the poet becoming less guarded as he became older and began to consider the frailty, uncertainty and preciousness of life – his feelings about which seemed to have become more intense after he suffered a stroke some years ago.

The guardedness, though, was still there in his 1996 poem, ‘A Call’, which describes a visit he pays a neighbour. While waiting for the man to appear at the open door, he hears the ticking of the hall clock and he gets lost in thoughts of time and mortality. The final line reads: “Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him”.

That “nearly”, so characteristic of Seamus Heaney, makes the poem almost unbearably poignant, though “nearly” is not a word that will be used by anybody who knew and loved this great Irish poet.

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