Seamus Heaney: A giant who wore his fame lightly
A year on from his death, Martina Devlin reflects on the word-weaver
After Seamus Heaney died, his widow Marie performed a generous act. Instead of fencing herself in behind grief, she recognised the bereavement of other people.
In a gesture of sharing and inclusivity, she made contact with his circle of friends, many of whom were also poets, and let each of them choose one of his ties to remember him by. A simple present, but telling.
Not only was she handing over a personal souvenir from the outstanding poet of his generation, she was giving them a memento from a dear friend. Someone with whom they had talked rhyme and reason over the decades. Someone with whom they had shared everything from meals to public-speaking platforms to dreams of creativity. No wonder the gift touched the recipients deeply.
Heaney is dead a year now - yesterday was his first anniversary - and his reputation for word-weaving remains dazzling. Inevitably, the coming years will continue to burnish it.
His publishers are bringing out a collection of his poetry in November, featuring personal selections of his work spanning 25 years, including a new poem - his last. Composed in welcome to a granddaughter, Siofra, he foreshadows his death during the course of it. But he is also conscious of the family chain stretching behind him, and a sense of the natural order is manifest - each generation making way for the succeeding one.
Heaney addresses the little girl personally, telling her how: "Listening to Bach/I saw you years from now/(More years than I'll be allowed)/Your toddler wobbles gone,/A sure and grown woman."
The poem, In Time, will make its first appearance in print in Ireland or Britain in the new book (it has appeared already in the New Yorker magazine). He died before completing the collection, but left behind his selections for what is certain to be a Christmas bestseller.
Few poets could top the book charts, but Heaney was a literary celebrity for a significant portion of his life - though he wore his fame lightly. Dubbed Famous Seamus, when he gave lectures or readings, people queued with such enthusiasm that they were dubbed Heaneyboppers.
However, he was an unassuming man with no urge - or, indeed, need - to peacock. "A moral down-to-earthness" - that's his own description for the quality he valued, quoted by him in the Nobel lecture he delivered in Sweden in 1996, a year after winning the prize.
Moral down-to-earthness encapsulates him. Yet, through his poetry, he took flight. More than any of us, he grasped the scope of language, understanding how it can transport people into other realms.
Via his verses, he told our own story back to us, this seanchaí poet, reminding us who we are. The North was discussed, from time to time - he never hid his interest in politics. In one poem, he draws parallels between the grief of a policeman's widow and a hunger striker's father, moving on to express the hope for "a great sea change on the far side of revenge". A sea change which came to pass, and he lived to see it.
Heaney did not regard the poet as someone who operated in isolation from society. Rather, he had a vision of his role that was steadfast, and clearly defined. He told us: "The aim of poetry and the poet is finally to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual into the larger work of the community as a whole."
To that end, he offered nuggets of advice in his poetry, or when he discussed it. "Even if the hopes you started out with have been dashed, hope has to be maintained," he told us. Surely that bears repetition: poetry and wisdom blended.
Again, in his magnificent address in Sweden following the award of his Nobel Prize, he referenced a line of his poetry, urging people to "walk on air against your better judgment". Wryly, he added, it was an instruction to himself as well as to anyone else who might be listening.
He also employed simple language, often with animal imagery or metaphors from the natural world, and while they were quintessentially Irish they achieved universality. Perhaps that's why his poetry continues to resonate.
Indeed, to see him ambling about was to be reminded of a countryman walking the land. For all his urbanity, he was country to the core. He made eye contact with strangers. He nodded at people in passing - he was civil, as they say, in the North.
But there was no denying that he was a public figure. Marie Heaney's gracious gesture to his poet friends was an acceptance that her husband of 48 years did not belong to her alone, nor to their family of two sons and a daughter - Michael, Christopher and Catherine. No doubt, she came to terms with that a long time ago, although in his last years, when he grew frail, it must have been hard to share him.
It was typical of Heaney that he chose to donate his personal literary notes to the National Library of Ireland, rather than auction them off for a considerable sum of money. He even boxed them up and delivered them himself.
He and Marie were often together at public events, and their devotion to one another was plain to see. I saw them together a few months before he died unexpectedly, as he was about to undergo a medical procedure in Dublin's Blackrock, a few miles from their Sandymount home.
One evening in June, they paid a visit to the Joyce Tower to support his friend, the poet Paul Muldoon, who was reading from his work during a recital there. His presence among us in the audience, not on a podium, was the equivalent of a friendly wave from a neighbour. That night, people did not crowd around him, however. His fragility was visible.
All the same, he was never detached from the people around him. You could as readily engage him in conversation about the weather as about Wordsworth. And indeed, I heard him, that night, exchange a few sentences about the economical outlook with a man waiting afterwards, like Heaney, for his wife.
He combined many roles, and seemed to move easily between public figure and family man. His affection for his children and grandchildren is visible in his poetry. A poem written for another granddaughter, A Kite For Aibhin, by way of greeting to her, mirrored the kite poem he wrote for his sons Michael and Christopher in Station Island, the joy of her arrival recalling a happy event from the past. The kite's string reminded him of the umbilical cord attaching baby to mother, but the cord is broken and the child's journey into life is launched: "The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall."
His impact on other poets cannot be overestimated, as many of them acknowledge. Recently, former Poet Laureate of Britain Sir Andrew Motion wrote an article describing how he has only to look at one of Heaney's early collections to remember how his poetry had sprung open a locked door in his heart. He wrote a fan letter to Heaney as a teenager, but received no reply.
Undaunted, he went to hear him read the following year, and mentioned the fan letter while he queued for his autograph. In his signed copy, the following message was inscribed: "Seamus Heaney to Andrew Motion - instead of a letter - with thanks 7th of April 1970." Motion admitted that he carried it home like treasure.
Heaney may have been the most interviewed and quoted of all living poets, but he was of humble stock and never forgot it. The eldest of nine children, he was brought up on a farm in Bellaghy, Co Derry. A former police station there is to be transformed into an interpretive centre celebrating his work. The change of use would have amused him.
Derry stayed in his heart, even though he lived for most of his life in Dublin - his wishes were to be buried in the soil from which he sprang, and that's where he was laid to rest on September 2 last year, with a procession of poets following his remains north.
To advance from Bellaghy to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature is no mean feat, but he made it look as though he footed it lightly. As lightly as he paced the floor with his toddler granddaughter Siofra, in that final poem: "In time, and silently".
Martina Devlin's latest book, The House Where It Happened is published on September 1