Some thoughts on Seamus Heaney

Sunday 1st September 2013

     Much talk, over these few days, of great Heaney poems that have been with us all our lives & that have moved us: but just knowing Seamus Heaney himself was deeply moving: humanity writ-large, a generosity to match his genius, an unassuming easy-goingness & a ready wit.

     It wasn’t just that he wrote to me about my first pamphlet, but that he wrote on hotel notepaper from the Grand Hotel in Stockholm where he’d gone to make that wonderful speech about poetry (& collect a prize): it was the fact of his ‘excuse the envelope’ that showed – while taking the Nobel honour seriously – he wanted you to know that he wasn’t taking himself too seriously.

     Many years ago when my college students were studying Emily Dickinson, I wrote to Seamus for his thoughts: his reply began ‘Builders in, windows, out, head astray…’ & all the books in packing cases. Plus he’d not written anything on Dickinson before. There followed a wonderful one-off (& never published) essay full of brilliant ideas & imaginative insights into her work: an incredible boost for an English class!

     The year I invited him to our Glens of Antrim Hewitt Festival at the Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough, he wrote to say he had to be in Ludlow that weekend but added, after sending his best wishes for the event, that, way back, when his Aunt Sally first got a car, one of their first Sunday jaunts out of Bellaghy was to Carnlough Harbour and afternoon tea at the Londonderry.

     When he did agree to come to the 2008 Hewitt Summer School in Armagh, where I also invited Billy Collins as American Poet Laureate in a double-bill, the demand was such that they generously agreed to do a second night in the main theatre (also sold out!) And the queue for book-signing stretched round the Market Place until close to midnight. Which didn’t stop Seamus turning up in the audience the following morning for my interview with Billy, or from asking questions in the Q&A session. Billy was honoured.

     Seamus was a great supporter of all my poetry ventures (mine & many others!), an attentive friend in company, & a sound ally & wise counsellor in the sometimes fraught literary world. He was also an unfailing & regular & eloquent correspondent, wherever you were in the world, wherever he was at the time.

     And he responded to every request, & barring the impossible, always did something for you: a new unpublished poem, The Wood Road, for my guest-edited Magma issue, for example; & just recently, when the poetry world gathered two months ago in London to celebrate the life & work of my former publisher at Peterloo, Harry Chambers, I asked Seamus for memories (to share with the audience) of Harry’s time teaching in nineteen-sixties Belfast. The usual full & eloquent reply not only listed, in amazing detail, which of his versions of which poems had been in each issue of Harry’s Phoenix magazine, but focused, in the last paragraphs, as only Seamus could do, on a single object that epitomised those student days.

     In his words…
…when Harry left Belfast I still felt a special closeness to him: in those days we used to frequent not only second hand book shops but second hand clothes shops as well. In one of these I once bought a stiff black canvassy coat, the kind of thing a railway guard might have worn on the platform on rainy nights. Its one fault was its stiff texture which sandpapered the neck and wrists, although I did like the transformation it effected, turning me into an official looking, slightly minatory figure, not unlike an RUC man. Then one windy wet night in our flat Harry was caught without a raincoat and I offered him the black beauty to see him home. The next time I saw him I told him to keep it. Which he did, but for how long I can’t be sure. It turned up most recently in section iv of ‘Route 110’ in Human Chain.

     That stiff black coat surely has echoes of the imaginary railway that surfaces in Seamus’ poem A Sofa in the Forties:

     Ghost train? Death gondola?

     … driver or
     Fireman, wiping his dry brow with the air

     Of one who had run the gauntlet…
     Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead,
     And be transported and make engine noise.

     That image of him as a railwayman on a rainy night in our distant rural past is one of the ways I’m seeing him today. That engine noise, that music of what happens, what transports us, what sets the darkness echoing, is with us still, Seamus.

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