The photo visible in the link given below comes from this past end-of-April, when Seamus Heaney, his wife Marie, and I coincided at the American Academy’s guesthouse in Rome. Seamus was there to read poems and talk about Ovid, later in May—one more instance in a lifetime's service to those he felt were progenitor-compatriots in the art. The memory is so recent, and he was so fully himself, and well. The Ovid presentation, I later heard, was, true to form, brilliant.
We spoke that night about those we’d known and been with together, now gone—Czeslaw and Carol Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Dennis O'Driscoll. Shared with Seamus and Marie, bereftness felt larger, softened of edge. Seamus carried with him, always it felt, a warming current, selfless and steady as a Gulf Stream. A benevolence-sense that existence itself was a grant of basic goodness, though without any blindness to what, beyond and outside goodness, might also be true.
I’ve met no poet more generous or more democratic in his way of being with others. In another part of the conversation, I mentioned that I'd not long before done something that he had, the year before: visited a class of very young students in a school in Grasmere, near Wordsworth's Dove Cottage. I told him of my extraordinary nervousness beforehand, and how I finally took myself to task: "Now, do you think Seamus Heaney gets so terribly frightened at the thought of speaking to six and seven year olds?" He answered: "Oh, but I did, I do."
You could count on such honesty from Seamus, and on the reliable eloquence, the twin brogues of accent and brilliance, though you could never predict the particulars they might be couched in—a rook, a root, a memory, some anthracite-compact quotation. In his presence and in his words, you felt the wholeness of his embrace of being, and also the burnish of original seeing—as if the world were a bas-relief being viewed from some different, sharpened angle of sun. And you felt, quite simply, more alive for his aliveness, in life and on the page.
In the poems, it seems to me, were two bedrock qualities, along with the virtuosity of Heaney’s singing and seeing—that signature joy in existence, and then the tempering knowledge of human choice, character, story, consequence. Consequence, above all perhaps—his words were never arabesques drawn on air for the sake of their own shapes. Beauty served him as a sextant for navigation, as a larger righting of justice and deepening of connection. Deepening mattered: his poems went as often into the earth as above it, and it’s interesting to notice how many of them take on some vertical axis, whether digging or climbing.
Two lines from his 2010 book, Human Chain, came to mind and stayed, once I’d taken in the shock of his too-soon passing—
I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.
Any newness of mind is daunting. A good poet tests truth as frankly and impolitely as a classroom of very young children tests those who visit for what they might bring. Without diminishing the seriousness of poetry or his hopes for its powers to persuade toward the good, Seamus Heaney found a way to make of the daunting a habitable grass-woven nest: intricate, fragile, warming, self-supporting and lasting. He made of poetry and of his own life a place—historied, lived in, worded—in which a thoughtful and hopeful species might come to try on more largeness of spirit, more ethical balance, more unblindered seeing, more praise, more simple kindness. His poems, thoroughly Ireland's and thoroughly the world's and thoroughly his own, now ours, show these things not unconnected.
(Photo: Jane Hirshfield and Seamus Heaney at the American Academy in Rome's Villa Aurelia, April 29, 2013. Credit: Marie Heaney.)
This post also published at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/23683
Causes Jane Hirshfield Supports
International Campaign for Tibet