Seamus Heaney’s going to the next world made me think that the good poets are dying but that’s not entirely true. We are “followers” and will not go away from them, and they’re not really gone from us although it appears so. I was doing my MFA in creative writing at Syracuse University when he came to read and give the University Lecture in 2010. We gathered in Hendricks chapel, where the lecture took place. All his books were arranged on a long table, and after his reading I remember getting confused about which title to buy. I wanted him to autograph my copy but I ended up staying too long around the books, caught between wonder and hesitation while the queue to his autograph grew longer and longer.
He was witty, cracking jokes about his large family, what it was like being the first of nine children, the influence of Catholicism on his mother, especially, and I came out of his talk and reading feeling pleasant, connected, light, happy even, wondering how he makes the mundane seem extraordinary, how he gives life to the plain, how he makes the personal universal without spilling his guts all over the pages. Perhaps the magic was in the straightforward, clear, and clean simple language of his poems, perhaps his understated emotional depth. What I took away eventually was his willingness to engage personal stories with social, cultural and political realities.
He wasn’t only Irish, Catholic, or whatever other pigeonhole but a wonderful human, a marvelous poet, who knew how to truthfully write about some things that were deeply private without turning himself into a sideshow attraction and inviting people to gawk. He instead revealed our common humanity and greater purpose–a wonderful quality that is missing in most contemporary poets today. I won’t drop names but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, you’ve come across some navel-gazing stuff passing for…, haven’t you?
Perhaps the best way to honor Seamus Heaney is with his own medicine as ‘we keep stumbling behind him, refusing to go away.’ Have a peaceful rest.
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
Reader, feel free to add your best Seamus poem.