Meeting Seamus Heaney
Ireland is not a nation that permits many degrees of separation between its residents. Just about everybody in Ireland is (or was) a friend of a friend of Seamus Heaney. I, however, only met Seamus Heaney once, not in Ireland but in Scotland – on the campus of the University of Stirling at a great sprawling conference on poetry and history some time in the late 1990s.
The summer was almost vulgar in its warmth and fecundity. Rabbits infested the campus and frolicked shamelessly. At a nearby pub in Bridge of Allan, Germany defeated England on penalties and the entire clientele burst spontaneously into “Deutschland Uber Alles”, collectively exhibiting an eerie familiarity with the words.
Heaney was of course the well advertised highlight. He gave readings from The Spirit Level and Station Island and afterwards sat patiently and obediently to meet and greet and sign. A shaggy head on a relaxed body and an easy smile that occupied his entire face with its complicated creases. His reading style was slow and deliberate, enjoying his own words without any hint of false modesty.
I chatted with him for a while and he signed my copy of Station Island.
Was Seamus Heaney my favourite poet? No. Not always. His crowning achievements from North and Field Work in particular will probably last as long as English is spoken anywhere. Yet his achievement was greater than the sum of his works. He acquired cultural responsibilities that exceeded his output and he fulfilled those responsibilities in an exemplary fashion. For many people, Heaney was poetry and, as Molly Bloom might say – as well him as anyone else.
Heaney was also an inspiring example of the kind of status that a citizen can enjoy within a successful republican polity. Better than royalty, his was an earned ceremonial presence and the aura he generated was equally and pleasantly republican. He provoked undegrading deference.
Heaney also suggested that you can be cosmic and earthy at the same time. That you can stretch for the cosmos and keep both feet on the ground – that locality and infinity are things best understood in concert. Antaeus, whose strength was linked to his connection with the soil, was one of his most representative classical archetypes. Like Wordsworth, Heaney believed and expressed the reality that infinitude and abstraction are best encountered through the intransigent (and pungent) thinginess of things.
And Heaney was a diplomat and an ambassador. It became his job to mean Irish poetry to the wider world. A lesser spirit would have spoiled this job. With a combination of shrewdness and generosity, modesty and wit, Heaney succeeded in using his celebrity honorably and profitably.
A Heaneyless world will take a bit of getting used to.