I was sad to hear that the poet Seamus Heaney died today.
I’ve long loved the mix with which he wrote…of sharp-eyed observation, challenging thinking, musical language and an almost startling awareness of the weight of each word.
He and his friend Ted Hughes were the two elder poets working in my corner of the world as I made first, clumsy attempts at writing poetry in my teens.
When it came out, in 1982, my father gave me their anthology ‘The Rattle Bag’, as a Christmas present. I was seventeen. It was quite some present – an amazing, travelling collection of poetry.
I can remember feeling new things going on inside me as I turned the pages of that book…trying to keep up with the new words, the unfamiliar names, and the range of poetic styles from all round the world and all across the centuries.
It was one of the moments when a cultural object seemed to burst open something in my young mind.
It had happened three or four years earlier when I put on the first album by the punk band Stiff Little Fingers, and dropped down into the fierce, dark guitars of the opening song.
I remember seeing Joan Miró’s strange, blue work ‘Painting’ at the old Tate Gallery as a teenager. And the world suddenly seemed bigger and bolder than I had thought.
Similar things went on as I stared my way through a season of Luis Buñuel films that was on the television around then.
I even remember a building having the same effect – the first time I looked up at the glass and bright-coloured tubes of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, aged 16.
What was bursting? Horizons? New doorways? The innocence of someone yet to leave home? I’m not sure how to put it. All I can say is that each time it felt like something opening that wasn’t going to close.
I heard Seamus Heaney reading his poems, at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2002. I remember him being refreshingly bumbling (coming on the stage with his poems in a tatty old bag) and, with it, serene and tuneful.
He read with passion and care. The most beautiful poem of the night was ‘At The Wellhead’, in which he describes his wife’s shut-eyed singing and talks of Rosie Keenan, a blind, musical neighbour in the farming community where he grew up, who opened his young mind to the possibilities of music and poetry.
At the end there were questions for him and someone asked, “How did you become a poet?” Seamus Heaney replied, “It’s a mystery to me, happily. At school I wasn’t good at English. I was good at sums.” Then he added that there were ways in which maths still felt central. He tried to remember the mathematical formula for work. Someone in the audience helped him: WORK = FORCE + DISTANCE.
“Yes,” said Heaney, with sudden passion. “And it’s the distance that’s so important. It’s no good if you just dump it down. Move it!”
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 find the heart unlatched and blow it open.
by Seamus Heaney (from ‘The Spirit Level’, 1996)