Seamus Heaney by Burns Library, Boston College, under a Creative Commons licence
So many images come flooding into mind at this abrupt news of Seamus Heaney’s death….
His private visit to the Scottish Poetry Library, of which he was an Honorary President, just to spend half an hour chatting to me and my colleagues around a table. Already lovers of his poetry, we were charmed by the genial man who seemed able to be himself, no matter what the occasion. How extraordinary to maintain that authenticity of presence despite all the attention and honours and having to be, as Yeats said, ‘a smiling public man’.
His later presence at a gathering of Friends and supporters of the SPL, and his encouraging words about the Library: that it was important for other nations to see the cultural confidence and self-respect that the Library represented. How he loved library words: ‘holdings’ – a sense of the treasure being kept; ‘the stack’ – with its associations of promise, richness, the ‘golden reliability of the corn’. And not least his happiness at being among Scottish poets, on the shelves and in the audience that evening, ‘it makes me feel like an honorary Scottish poet, part of the brotherhood’ – and catching Kathleen Jamie’s eye – ‘and the sisterhood of Scottish poets’.
His holding a capacity audience spellbound, reading from his last book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – no one was moving a muscle, everyone was leaning forward in a rapt attention that was very moving to witness. He was not well then, still recovering from the stroke which nevertheless fuelled many of the poems in the last collection – how sad to say, ‘last collection’. We had a polite argument behind the scenes of the EIBF, about his signing books: it had been suggested to me that he should pre-sign them to save the effort of a public signing, and indeed he was doing that, but he was very conscious of the public expectation that he’d be available. Despite my trying to persuade him that the performance and availability of signed books would be enough, he didn’t want to disappoint people and so signed copies afterwards as well – though EIBF Director Nick Barley rightly said I was to announce that he’d sign one copy only and no inscriptions. I sat beside him as he signed, and of course people were thrilled just to stand across the table from him and to say, however briefly, how much his poems meant to them.
And who would deny him that pleasure? Because no matter how grand the poet, and how voluminous the sales – and Heaney’s remain mighty – the poet still writes in solitude and then casts his bread upon the waters…and to know how it touches readers must be an immense source of renewal. He was surprisingly nervous walking along to the big tent, I would never have expected that in a poet with so many performances behind him.
I had lunch with him once, by myself, at La Garrigue in Edinburgh – he so enjoyed the fish we ate, he asked me to send him a note of the sauce, he wanted to tell his wife about it. That lunch was one of the greatest treats I’ve had in a very fortunate working life in poetry. Afterwards we walked down the Canongate and I took him to see the grave of Robert Fergusson, which he hadn’t seen before. I have a picture in my mind of the Irish poet bending to read the headstone commissioned by Robert Burns: all the brothers in their art held there for a moment, and Seamus a very great member of their company.
May he rest in peace. Our thoughts are with his family, and our deepest sympathy goes to them in their loss of the family man. The whole community of poetry mourns its loss, while rejoicing in the poetry that remains.
Poet and SPL Board Member Robert Crawford adds:
I met Seamus for the first time in the early 1980s and always remember his generosity. When David Kinloch, the American poet Henry Hart and I were students starting up Verse magazine, he gave us not only a poem for the first issue but also £50 towards printing costs. Then he brandished a copy of the magazine at a big public reading, which ensured that lots of people bought it. This was absolutely characteristic of his big-heartedness. A matching benignity is present in his poetry, but also a perfectionist's stringency. The combination of the two is remarkable, and represented an unfailing poetic gift. Though he could work magisterially and deftly with institutions (such as universities, most notably Queens Belfast, Harvard and Oxford) he had the strength and nimbleness never to be contained by them. He was loved around the world, yet always seemed an individual who was meeting a fellow individual. The last time I met him was in June when he came to St Andrews University and read, among other things, 'The Names of the Hare', a poem full of resourcefulness and twinkle.
In 2009, on a visit to the SPL, Seamus Heaney left us a message, quoting fellow great, Czesław Miłosz: