Out of the Marvelous: Remembering Seamus Heaney
Out of the Marvelous: Remembering Seamus Heaney
. . . what’s poetry, if it is worth its salt,
but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?
— Derek Walcott
Most important is to be able to enter a word like
— Ted Hughes
Driving Seamus to the Denver airport in April 2001, I was a case of nerves. My hands had broken out in hives I prayed he didn’t notice as I shifted gears and dodged the heavy traffic on the Interstate. Why I might be nervous around this most genial of men is a long story. He was the first poet I’d ever discovered on my own—in 1975, before he had a reputation in the United States—and his example had meant more to me than I could tell him.
In Colorado Springs two days before, I had taken him past the empty storefront that used to be the Chinook Bookshop. “That’s where I ordered a copy of North,” I told him. “I was reading you before my professors.” He hunched in the passenger seat, his quizzical expression warming at my recollection. That broad face with small pursed lips had become iconic. His tweed jacket and tie were the uniform one expected. But I hadn’t realized his hands would not be a farmer’s big claws. They were surprisingly refined. He had done his digging, as he promised in his most famous early poem, with a pen.
That night at dinner we had talked of mutual friends in Ireland, including Dennis O’Driscoll, who would eventually die so much younger even than Seamus, and John Devitt, a marvelous Dublin teacher and raconteur, now also dead. It was John who told me in the 1990s my favorite Heaney story, one Seamus relished.
Driving some French friends down the Strand Road in Dublin, John had spotted Seamus walking and pulled his car over to say hello. Seamus leaned in at the window—that big squinting face in which you could see the farming lineage but also an atavistic, bemused intelligence. They chatted for a bit, and when Seamus went his way and John pulled into traffic again, his friends asked who that very nice man had been. “That man?” John always loved this bit: “That’s the fucker who’s gonna win the Nobel Prize.”
Like so many others, I had my own anthology of favorite Heaney moments, all arising from the oral pleasures associated with his distinctively earthy voice. You can go back as far as “Digging” where a pen rests “snug as a gun,” and where the work of shoveling spuds is described with such physical precision: “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/ Against the inside knee was levered firmly.” That lug rhyming with dug for me would always rhyme with slug, a word that crawled on the ground, one of the creeping things of creation itself. In the same famous poem a turf-cutter’s motions are equally precise, the blade “Nicking and slicing neatly.” No other recent poet has been so good at onomatopoeia. In the masterful title poem from his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), we find this image: “Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked/ On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:/ The slap and plop were obscene threats.”
It’s the mouthing of words, or words made flesh, he celebrates most, as in his love poem for his wife, Marie, “The Skunk”: “The beautiful, useless/ Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence./ The aftermath of a mouthful of wine/ Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.” Just saying the lines was more than half their meaning. Heaney gave (and gives) an aural fascination, but also an oral pleasure. You can play in his wordhoard (a noun he loved) like a kid slapping mudpies for fun. Leap ahead thirty years to his book The Spirit Level and you find the gift undiminished. No one has better described the work of a mason building a wall:
Over and over, the slur, the scrape and mix
As he trowelled and retrowelled and laid down
Courses of glum mortar. Then the bricks
Jiggled and settled, tocked and tapped in line.
The verse technique conveys a respect for the work, as if the mason’s tocking and tapping were a kind of talking and measuring, a code like poetry itself. The poem pits that man’s work against the destroyers, the killers, so it lives in a more rigorous moral realm than most contemporary writing.
The highway up the Front Range was not Colorado’s beauty spot. I still feel apologetic when I take guests that way. We talked of literary things, mostly. Then, as if to check my local credentials, he asked, “That bird there—what would you call it?”
“A meadowlark,” I answered. “You can tell from the yellow breast. They have the most beautiful song. Out in the prairies you can pull off the road and listen to them for hours.”
“And those trees there?”
“Cottonwoods. See the line they follow—there’s water there, maybe an arroyo or a small stream.”
Arroyo. How far we were from Ireland. How far poetry had taken him, from the little farmhouse at Mossbawn to life as the world’s busiest advocate for poetry, a man whose calendar was more jammed with speaking engagements than most politicians’. The story I heard in Ireland was that Marie had put a sign next to the telephone saying simply “No. No. No. No. No.” It was not a word he used with any frequency.
Massive restrictions at security were not yet a part of our lives, but when I dropped him at the curb he reached into his luggage and brought out a bottle of Black Bush whiskey. “I don’t suppose I can take this with me. You should have it.”
It was talismanic. Seamus Heaney’s whiskey! I drove back to Colorado Springs with a story to tell and a bottle I vowed I would never drink.
One of the first attempts at literary criticism I ever published was called “Seamus Heaney’s Guttural Muse.” It appeared in The Mid-American Review sometime in the 1980s and the editor put a typo in the title that has embarrassed me ever since. He called the essay “Seamus Heaney’s Gutteral Muse.” I remember seeing it spelled that way in the MLA Bibliography and thinking I would be cursed by the gods of typography. Somehow I was able to send the piece to Seamus with a handwritten correction and he sent a kind and complimentary postcard back.
The essay focused on his poem called “The Guttural Muse,” in which the poet watches a scene in “a hotel car park”:
A girl in a white dress
Was being courted out among the cars:
As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs
I felt like some old pike all badged with sores
Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life.
Now that I think of it, that early essay of mine also warned Heaney about fame. I took umbrage at Robert Lowell’s comparison of him to Yeats and said Heaney reminded me more of Roethke. “Places great with their dead,” Roethke had written, “The mire, the sodden wood,/ Remind me to stay alive.” You could have told me Heaney wrote those words.
The conjoinment of public and private realms, the sense that history is personal and that one lives privately in relation to historical events, seemed significant. Richard Ellmann, in a piece contrasting the elevation of Yeats to the earthiness of Joyce, had placed Heaney in Joyce’s camp, the way Joyce’s characters are haunted by history. Others have noticed a similar earthbound influence from Kavanagh. All true enough. But when Heaney’s great elegiac poem “Casualty” appeared in the New Yorker I clipped the pages, recognizing formal echoes not only of Yeats’s “Easter 1916” but also of “The Fisherman.” He was not so easy to peg.
Both North (1975) and Field Work (1979) are high points in the Heaney canon, but he never published a bad book. Time will pare away some weaker poems, some repetition, and will leave plenty of superior writing for readers to ponder and live with. Put succinctly, Heaney’s problem after Field Work was to handle the earthward tug of autobiography in a new way, and also to find his own manner of transcending it.
The pull of the quotidian remained strong to the end. Seamus always wondered about the meaning of such matters, most famously in the tercets of Seeing Things (1991):
The annals say: when the monks at Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
“This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”
The abbot said, “unless we help him.” So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvelous as he had known it.
John Devitt once chided him for that lofty opening—“Hah! The annals say”—and Seamus gently but firmly put him in his place: “The annals do say it.” He could cite chapter and verse. His scholarship was never slipshod, as he demonstrated in his translations and essays. There’s a quality of mind in the poems as well, a grounded intelligence that allows for an intellectual life as well as a life of the body.
He transcended the quotidian by seeing it for what it is—the marvelous.
I first heard him read in Brockport, New York, back in the 1980s. He had a dental condition called “dry socket,” and his hosts had left him on stage with a bottle of whiskey as pain killer. I needn’t have worried—there was no drunken performance, but the measured and sane voice of a man happy to be there. After publishing that early essay, I corresponded with him a bit, and finally met him in Athens in 1997, when my friend Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke published a translation of his poetry into Greek. There was a reading at the Center for the Book with drinks afterwards on the roof. Seamus looked tanned and healthy, wearing a white linen suit that surprised me—it gave him an air of urbanity I hadn’t known he possessed. But of course he was literally a man of the world by that time, and numbered among his friends the likes of Walcott and Miłosz, members in good standing of the Nobel Club.
I gathered the courage to introduce myself.
“We have a mutual friend, John Devitt in Dublin.”
“Ah, John’s a good man.”
“Yes, we’ve spent many hours talking about your poetry.”
That was it. Bango. He was whisked away to another engagement by Marie and friends. Later, a big party was held at the Irish Embassy and I foolishly did not attend, feeling there would be no real opportunity to talk to the man I had so long admired. What I heard afterward about that party suggests it would have been bibulous and fun.
When Seamus came to Colorado College at Easter 2001 (he read on April 16th, just three days after his birthday), he did not charge an exorbitant fee and gave generously of his time, talking to a class in aesthetics and to a faculty luncheon. The magic of the visit was that everyone seemed to get what they wanted. My colleague Jonathan Lee had the pleasure of hosting and introducing him. My friend Barry Sarchett took him to a local pub and arrived on the scene with a man as famous as Jesus. Every Irish nun in Colorado had come and brought their cousins too, and the church where he gave his reading, full at eight hundred people, was bursting with at least a thousand. My fellow poet Joan Stone and I got to see true eloquence close up.
In the classroom I asked him about his more exotic diction, not just Irish words, but the Latinate and Anglo-Saxon and Greek. “Are you a habitual reader of dictionaries?”
“No,” he answered. His friend and former student Paul Muldoon was more that sort of poet. For Heaney words accrued from living. As he says in his Beowulf preface, the Anglo-Saxon word “thole,” to endure, was common parlance among the Ulster farmers of his childhood. He had Church Latin as well as school Latin. The languages of work and play and even terrorism—words like “gelignite”—were the atmosphere of life.
As he stood before the faculty at lunch that day, he rocked momentarily on his feet and held the podium. “I think I’ll begin by saying a poem to you, just to ground myself in the room and in the word before I speak.” He recited from memory the Thomas Wyatt poem “Whoso List to Hunt,” remarking on what seems estranging in the phrasing of it, and what becomes familiar—“I am of them that furthest come behind.” And from this small harbor of familiarity he launched a shapely lecture on Beowulf and translation. Of course he was a practised speaker, one of the busiest on earth, and would have done versions of the same talk, the same reading, before. But he gave them the freshness of presence, the full joy of mouthing the words.
So why did I have a case of the hives? Why was I so nervous when we set out for the airport in Denver?
It was partly because I had written essays and reviews implying limitations in his work, and was afraid he would take offense. It was partly that he was the first poet I had found on my own; that I had learned from the example of his voice, had measured myself by the yardstick of his work ever since I first tried writing poems. And it was partly that I wanted him to love me as much as I had loved him, though I knew the desire was foolish and impossible.
At the curbside he gave me the talismanic whiskey.
The bottle stood on a shelf in my office for a week. Finally I thought, Why not? and had a few nips, holding the whiskey in my mouth and feeling the alcohol burn into my sinuses. I would go slowly. I would toast Seamus. I would taste the whiskey as I had tasted his words virtually all of my life.
Then, with the help of a friend or two, the whiskey was gone.