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Seamus Heaney

Originally published at Sarah Rees Brennan. You can comment here or there.

Ireland has a rep: the land of saints and scholars. It’s something I get asked a lot when in America. ‘Would you have known a lot of Irish writers as a child?’ I always said that no, I didn’t know that many prose writers. Maeve Binchy went to one of my schools (I went through a lot of schools!) but I never met her and that was about it.

I knew a lot of poets. Creative artists get tax breaks in Ireland, and poets tend to make even less money than most writers. Poets get supported and celebrated in Ireland, where we tend to like poetry, and music, and… well, okay, yes, the drink. We even adopted other poets into the nation: Seamus Heaney did a verse translation of Beowulf, Frank Guinness and other poets (including me, in a rare poetic moment) translated Catullus into Irish and English. ‘Ah, love, what a waste,’ several people said to me when I talked about wanting to write filthy prose. ;)

Seamus Heaney, whose funeral was today (and who, you know, had died beforehand) was one of the great lights of Irish poetry: was in many ways The Irish Poet. I learned his poems in school.

I didn’t really know Seamus Heaney, but I met him several times, at parties when everyone had drink taken. He was at my uncle’s sixtieth: we all went to hear him read from Beowulf. He was always lovely, and I was always shy around him, as it’s natural to be about genius, I think: you’re worried you might be stupid in front of genius, the way you might worry about breathing on a golden artefact. The thing I remember best about him in person, other than the constant sense of ‘Oh my gosh Seamus Heaney!’ was that he was always notably and touchingly devoted to his wife Marie Devlin: bringing her up in conversations when she was not there, turning to hear what she said whenever she spoke, always acting like she was the most important and interesting person in the room.

My clearest memory of him is of the Guinness Book of World Records day when the writers of Ireland were rounded up to do a lot of live readings, one after the other, until we were in possession of the record for longest continuous live reading. I was shattered, as I’d been at a wedding the day before and it was moving day at mine, but I stumbled through my reading, and then I stayed, because Seamus Heaney was reading soon and I wanted to hear him read. He did read, and it was wonderful, and then Marie Devlin did, and she was wonderful too. I remember how he said hers was the best reading of the morning.

Later at that same event…

SARAH: Great poetry.
SHORT GUY: Thank you.
SARAH: Are you a full-time poet?
SHORT GUY: Ah… no.
SARAH (blithely): Oh, what else do you do?
SHORT GUY: I am president.
SARAH: Cool, of what?
SHORT GUY: Of… this country?

Seamus Heaney, a kind soul who I did not after all have to be so shy of, heard this entire exchange and valiantly did not laugh.

I always liked this poem of his so much.


Lady with the frilled blouse
And simple tartan skirt,
Since you have left the house
Its emptiness has hurt
All thought. In your presence
Time rode easy, anchored
On a smile; but absence
Rocked love’s balance, unmoored
The days. They buck and bound
Across the calendar
Pitched from the quiet sound
Of your flower-tender
Voice. Need breaks on my strand;
You’ve gone, I am at sea.
Until you resume command
Self is in mutiny.

‘Noli timere’ – in Latin, don’t be afraid. They were his last words. He said it to his wife.

I’m sorry he is gone. But it seems to me one of the best ways to go: to change the world with words, and end with love and courage.


( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 3rd, 2013 02:07 am (UTC)
My first exposure to Seamus Heaney was his Beowulf translation, which I read all of after being unable to get through, like, two other translations of Beowulf. I remember reading some of his poems in school and being like "Wait, this guy writes his OWN poetry TOO?" (I am not always so on top of things.) I should read more; I do remember the poems of his I have read as being really good.

PS That exchange with Short Guy/the president is classic.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 02:12 am (UTC)
I am an embarrassment to myself and others. ;) His poetry is excellent.
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Sep. 3rd, 2013 02:22 pm (UTC)
You know me, m'dear. ;)
Sep. 3rd, 2013 07:06 am (UTC)
My first exposure to Heaney was "Mid Term Break" in the 5th class religion book. Always get weepy when I read that.

And the story of you and Michael D is hilarious!
Sep. 3rd, 2013 07:56 am (UTC)
I have just laughed so loudly at your story of meeting Higgins that my son became somewhat concerned. *shouts with laughter* I love you, Sarah Rees Brennan. :)
Sep. 3rd, 2013 08:11 am (UTC)
That's a lovely story.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 10:00 am (UTC)
Oh, now you've gone and made me cry. What a beautiful post.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 10:04 am (UTC)
That is the most adorable anecdote. I'm still giggling!
Sep. 3rd, 2013 10:10 am (UTC)
Love Seamus Heaney, I was really sad when I heard the news. I remember studying Mid-term Break in second year and just being so struck by its beauty and simplistic honesty (I never really 'got' poetry, before that lol). His work has stayed with me in the years since then.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 12:05 pm (UTC)
it seems to me one of the best ways to go: to change the world with words, and end with love and courage

That's right up there with the best of the many things that have written about him these past few days.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 01:35 pm (UTC)
Oh Sarah, only you could make me tear up and then giggle wildly within 2.5 seconds.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 03:36 pm (UTC)
Seamus Heaney was wonderful, and so is this. Thank you for it. :)
Sep. 3rd, 2013 09:07 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this post. It's lovely. And your exchange with the president made me laugh and laugh.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 09:52 pm (UTC)
Aw, thank you. ;) I, um, like to bring both sorrow and levity in form of my own faily ways.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 09:24 pm (UTC)
Lovely post. The anecdote is hilarious. :) sorry about the embarrasment?

I just finished Untold! If I hadn't been close to finishing the book, I may have spent my evening baking a cake for my baby's 1st birthday. I guess I'll just bring some store bought cookies to daycare tomorrow. My boyfriend says that doesn't make me a bad mum, but I wonder. But, um, anyway, i just wanted to say I loved the book, though you really enjoy torturing your readers and characters, huh? :) I'm kind of exhausted at the moment, so I'm not really in shape to be writing, hopefully it still makes sense.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 09:53 pm (UTC)
I hope you rest and enjoy the cupcakes--I'm so glad you liked the book!
Sep. 3rd, 2013 10:08 pm (UTC)
I really did! :)
I tried to find some discussion of the book and realised it's not even supposed to be out yet? It did seem a bit early... I wanted to double check I didn't write anything spoilery and thank god I didn't. Your readers are I am sure, well aquainted with your evil ways. :)
I also wanted to add that the 'new york times best selling author' thingy on the cover made me very happy for you. :D
(got to go sleep, way past my bedtime... My baby is probably about to wake up soon for the first nighttime cuddling time)
Sep. 3rd, 2013 10:39 pm (UTC)
Sleep well!

The NYT thing is not really real--it's down to Cassie Clare, and her loyal fans of Magnus Bane and the Bane Chronicles, and Maureen Johnson, rather than any merit of my own, but I am very thankful of course!

UK copies seem to have sneaked out early in some places and not others, so you were one of the Chosen Ones. ;)
Sep. 3rd, 2013 09:29 pm (UTC)
Later at that same event…

SARAH: Great poetry.
SHORT GUY: Thank you.
SARAH: Are you a full-time poet?
SHORT GUY: Ah… no.
SARAH (blithely): Oh, what else do you do?
SHORT GUY: I am president.
SARAH: Cool, of what?
SHORT GUY: Of… this country?

I had to clap my hand over my mouth, I'm sorry. Oops.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 09:56 pm (UTC)
Was in your shop today: looked for you, alas! ;) Bought six books to comfort self.
Sep. 3rd, 2013 10:03 pm (UTC)
Ah 'twas my day off! Next time, next time. (And thank you for buying things!)

Also, the reason Untold was only on the shelf was because we sold out of the table stock! Had people come in asking for it and everything. Reorders are on the way! :)

Edited at 2013-09-03 10:04 pm (UTC)
Sep. 3rd, 2013 10:41 pm (UTC)
*victory fists* All stuff aside, I do feel like I finally wrote a book people want the sequel to. ;)

And buying things = my pleasure! Thank you for being a love and table stocking. I hope to see you soon in shop or out...
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Sep. 4th, 2013 07:03 pm (UTC)
Can I trade in my cruise missile flinging president for one that writes poetry?
Sep. 6th, 2013 01:05 am (UTC)
A friend of mine, once, who had broken his arm, asked Heaney at a reading if he would sign his cast. "No," said Heaney, "but I'll lick it." So, there is a man who had some perspective on his own celebrity. :) When I was in college Heaney was a visiting poet one semester a year, often taking meals with the undergraduates, but I was always much too shy to approach him, though I had friends who took his poetry seminars and loved them. (Yet another example of my wasted school days!). He seemed much-beloved. I did work in the library one term with one of his sons, who once tried to explain the traditional Irish political parties to me ("think of it as variations on 'up against the wall.'") In view of that now-overcome history, it's kind of a lovely thing to live in a country where one might not recognize the president.

Halloo to you across the time and space continuum! And many overdue good wishes and congratulations.

Edited at 2013-09-06 01:09 am (UTC)
Sep. 6th, 2013 11:34 am (UTC)
Hey, you. ;) Long time no see, and many good wishes to you! I wonder if your friend keep the licked cast for posterity...

In fairness to my countrypeople, I'm told that OTHER PEOPLE WOULD CERTAINLY RECOGNISE THE PRESIDENT, SARAH.
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( 28 comments — Leave a comment )


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