Yesterday, Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate and my number one favorite poet, died.
I somehow missed the news on Friday. I must not have gone on social media or looked at a news website all day yesterday.
At 3am last night when I couldn’t sleep, I grabbed the iPad on the bedside table, clicked on “Most Emailed Articles” at The New York Times, and saw the obituary.
Cue sobbing that woke the husband and the dog.
I was immediately taken back to all this poet has meant to me since I was 19 years old. Heaney’s work has nothing to do with most of what I write about here — nothing to do with women’s empowerment. But it has everything to do with the music and magic of writing, the spiritual life, and the courage it takes to live a life of true creative integrity. And those are all things that I am very interested in, to say the least.
Below is my essay about remembering him, which will come out this weekend at The Huffington Post. If you enjoyed Heaney it will be relevant to you in one way, but if you’ve never heard of him, perhaps it will help you remember and appreciate the thinkers and artists who have buoyed up your soul over the years.
There’s one more thing to say about all this, which does have to do with women playing big. So many of us get stuck not sharing our voices and our insights because we think we aren’t “expert enough” or qualified to do so.
I could have listened to the little voice in my head that said I should leave this topic to poetry experts, that my personal experience with Heaney isn’t relevant to share. I could have listened to that little voice that said I couldn’t pull together a decent post quickly enough. I could have even listened to the little catastrophizing voice that was sure the literary criticism police would come arrest, shame, or mock me for whatever I published.
Luckily, after all these years of working on, talking about, teaching about playing bigger, I now know better than to listen to those voices. I get that playing big and having an impact is all about hearing those voices and then going ahead and jumping in the sandbox anyway. I get that my article doesn’t need to be perfect and or be a work of fine literary criticism. Being me and telling my story is what is asked of me, and saying yes to that, even from time to time, is more than enough to make an impact and keep my heart feeling like she is allowed to speak and is being heard.
Just before I graduated from college, Seamus Heaney gave a reading at my university.
Now I know why he did it. He said in an interview,
One of the best descriptions of the type of writer I am was given by Tom Paulin, who described himself as a “binge” writer–like a binge drinker. I go on binges. Over the years, it has occurred as intense runs of about three months: you might write the half of a book in three months and then live for a year and a half…
That’s why I embrace tasks of one kind or another. At the moment, for instance, I’m doing a translation of Beowulf and, before that, I had my Oxford Lectures. Things like that give you the illusion of purpose between the poems. They keep you exercised and convinced that you have some verity. If you just rely on the arrival of poems you can feel pretty shaky.
Thousands of students around the world were lucky, as I was, that Heaney embraced “tasks” like lectures and readings between his writing binges.
When he visited my university, the audience packed one of the largest auditoriums on campus. Students and faculty lined the walls and sat in the aisles.
I was surprised: I was an English major and a lover of poetry. I’d assumed the literary crowd plus a few others would attend, but the audience was twenty times that size.
From the first moments, Heaney’s warmth and humility warmed the room. As he read, something quite unusual and hard to describe happened. Just like a Heaney poem, the evening began in the mundane but traveled somewhere otherworldly.
The silence during his reading grew thicker and softer, and the applause between poems grew raucous. People yelled and cheered–a rarity at poetry readings, to say the least. The light seemed to take on a kind of numinous quality. The air was still but electric. There was a sense of a kind of unfamiliar feast or communal celebration we were all attending–something, perhaps, from an older age.
The space in that room became infused with the crisp, immaterial, beckoning realm that Heaney poems pull us into.
Michael Longley, a Belfast poet and friend of Heaney, has said, “He was a poet of extraordinary complexity and profundity, so it’s surprising and remarkable that he also could be so popular… It’s not popular poetry. Seamus made it popular.” That speaks to the something, I think, that draws so many of us to Heaney’s poetry. It is what made that room, and all the rooms he spoke in, so packed. It is, yes, his poems, but it is also the largeness of consciousness and richness of soul that comes through those poems.
Heaney’s work was the first I read in college that touched me personally. Three years before that reading, I was in the introductory course for English majors. After a long eight months of studying the English poetic canon–Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton–our class concluded with reading one book by a contemporary poet: Heaney’s “The Spirit Level. ”
I was smitten from the first poem we read: “The Rain Stick.” In it, Heaney writes, of rain sticks and of poetry:
Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk
Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly
And Heaney reminds us to keep listening:
Upend the stick again. What happens next
Is undiminished for having happened once.
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if the music that transpires
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a shower. Listen now again.
For each of us, there are writers who mean something like this: when we remember to pick up their work in the midst of our busy lives, it soothes and uplifts us. But even when we fail to make time to read them, simply remembering that they there are here–doing their thing, with that much integrity, depth and soul–brings us comfort and helps us feel on more solid ground. They are part of the container of “what is here” in the world that we feel holds us somehow. Heaney was writer number one of that kind for me.
I mourn that he is no longer part of that container, at least not with quite the same “hereness.” Mostly though, I feel a grateful kind of pang in my chest, for his largeness and how it expanded us, and for how he took us, line by line, toward the spirit level.
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