In Memoriam: Seamus Heaney

Sven Birkerts

carousel-memoriam-heaneyFor any person who spent more than five minutes in the company of Seamus Heaney, the temptation to anecdotalize is almost irresistible.  I remember the night after one of his readings . . . We were at a pub . . . And to read these accounts, as we all have been doing in the days after his death, offers its own pleasure. Each adds some nuance, some new shading to the public portrait of a singularly charming man. No question, Seamus was gifted with the glow, and it was—here all agree, I think—authentic. That was the point of it. To not only appear that witty and graceful and puckish and alert to secrets, not to mention tolerant and generous, but to have that be verified over and over (never in my hearing unverified—and how ready people are to do that!), well, it is beyond analysis. And I want to leave it alone. I‘m going to resist the impulse to remember the funny little moments, bawdy slips, sentimental surprises, strikingly deadly judgments, conspiratorial confidences, and point instead at the enigma that the authentic outer show concealed, even though it was in also plain view in the wonderful work and everywhere remarked. It was, indeed, the basis of his great renown, its final certification. The mystery, to me, is not so much the existence of that verbal talent—though that is its own species of mystery—but the gulf between the outer show (the irresistible charismatic display) and the defiant hermetic resolve it takes to use language at that level, to make the poems he made. This asks, let’s be honest, the most strenuous private pressure, a big part of which is about pushing the clamorous world away. How Seamus went from the public arena to what he sometimes called, only half-jokingly, the “scriptorium,” is baffling. That he could make the transit over and over, even while appearing—being—the most gregariously giving of souls boggles my mind. But this was, if I’m honest, what struck me most forcibly after his death, after I, like so many others, reviewed the testimonies and speeches: that when the compelling and elaborate edifice is taken away, all the pub nights and photo-ops and wonderfully picturesque reminiscences—Seamus with Lowell, with Brodsky, with Ted Hughes, with royals and musicians and  presidents—what remains is, amazingly, pretty much everything. Yes, true, he did all of those grand famous and interesting things, but his most enviable strength was that he could make a bastion around his family and core loved ones, that he could, decade after decade, confide the truest distillation of all he knew to poetry. To langauge: the syllables arranged in lines, obeying the unteachable verbal and rhythmic codes that let them detonate in the reader. Seamus’ poems:  those utterly accurate sound-sense enactments that reminded us, as almost nothing anymore can, that the best words in the best order touch the truest places in us, and in the moment of apprehension put the rest of the display to the side.

Read Seamus Heaney’s “Castalian Spring,” first published in the Spring 2001 issue of The Kenyon Review.

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