I was very saddened to learn of the death of Seamus Heaney on August 30, 2013.
Those who know me well know that Heaney was the poet I admired above all others. I first discovered his work (a bit late) back in 1979 when I read Field Work and I’ve been reading him ever since. I had heard of him before that -- knew he was a friend of Ted Hughes, whom I admired greatly -- and I had seen the well-known painting by Edward McGuire in which he looks young and of the times. And I had read some poems in a magazine, poems about Viking Dublin. They were from the collection North and I rather liked them.
But it was with Field Work that I first heard the poet that I came to love and though I also prize his earlier work, too, Field Work will always have a special place in my affections.
Certain poems stand out for me. The Toome Road, where he speaks of the soldiers in Northern Ireland and how their presence will pass and leave what is important and real in the place where he lives:
O charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The invisible, untoppled omphalos.
In The Gutteral Muse we hear his longing for youth, for “soft-mouthed life”.
In Casualty he paints not only the man who will be killed in the sectarian violence of the times but paints the times themselves
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse ...
And in In Memoriam for Sean O’Riada he says of the composer/conductor
He conducted the Ulster Orchestra
like a drover with an ashplant
herding them south.
And yet Heaney is always an Ulster poet for all that he lived in Dublin as long as he did. He was never “herded south”. Irish through and through, he knew there was much to admire in English culture and literature. He knew that the voice of Ulster had that English turn to it as well as an old Gaelic song deep in its heart.
If you’ve never read him, find some of his poetry and read it aloud. Much has been written about him but what will count will be what you will find there.