All morning, from across the bogs and beyond the whale-road, tributes have been pouring in for Seamus Heaney. It’s a lovely thing to witness: words (by Heaney, by his admirers) brightening an otherwise dark day. On Harriet, Tom Sleigh remembers his friend’s “self-mockery and roguish good humor.” In Seattle, poets are being summoned to recite favorite Heaney poems over pints of Guinness. Everyone’s sharing Heaney’s Times’ obituary (which ends with this excellent advice from “Station Island”: “The main thing is to write / for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust”). Everyone’s posting “Digging,” the opening poem in Heaney’s first collection.
I was thinking about “Digging” this morning, while I was half watching my daughter and half drinking coffee. (Maybe I was 100% drinking coffee.) “I wrote a Z,” my daughter said, and I looked down, and, sure enough: a Z, the first letter of her name. She had never done this before; in fact, just a couple of weeks ago, her mother gave an interview where she told this sweet (to me, anyway) story:
When she’s coloring, my daughter likes me to write various names down on the page amidst her scribbles—her name, my name, her dad’s name, her dolls’ names. Once, I suggested she do it herself. She stood with her crayon poised on the page for a moment and then said plaintively, “I don’t know how to write.” I often feel the same way. I won’t say that motherhood has made me more patient (though it certainly has made me more aware of how impatient I am). But I like to think it’s made me more joyful about small triumphs, which can keep one pressing onward in spite of difficulty. How wonderful it will be when my daughter puts a pencil to paper and begins to form her letters, however misshapen and clumsy they may be.
That colored pencil she grips, full-fisted, in her left hand: she’ll dig with it.
Later in the morning, I was battling some English ivy that’s been forcing its way through our house’s foundation. (Among the many things you don’t want to Google: “English ivy malicious.”) Again, I thought of Heaney: his connection to the land, his mining of metaphors. Like Frost, Heaney explored landscape not for the sake of the landscape alone, but to get closer to some hard-to-pin-down human feeling. Here’s the ending to “The Blackbird of Glanmore,” as moving a poem about a brother’s death as you’re likely to find:
The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel
In front of my house of life.
Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak—
On the grass when I arrive,
In the ivy when I leave.
So. This evening, when you think of it, raise a glass to this not-gone giant. (According to my Facebook News Feed, every former English grad student in America shared a drink at some point with Heaney. I did, too: in 1999, in the basement pub of Seattle’s College Inn. We talked about Beowulf, and radio interviews, and Northwest porters.) After raising that glass, you might listen to Heaney read some poems. Or you might flip through the best poetry anthology in the English-speaking world: The Rattle Bag, edited by Heaney and Ted Hughes. It begins with these lines, from Thomas Nashe: “Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss, / This world uncertain is.”