We all know people who do not put on airs. Seamus Heaney was such a one. Seamus also had no gestures. Most of us learn to fake it and in time become adept at all the little white lies, and some of the larger ones, of fakery. But not Seamus. He was alert and wholly present whether engaged with those he knew well or with the thousands of students, bartenders, reporters, workmen, secretaries and waiters that he encountered. In over thirty years of friendship I never saw Seamus act otherwise.
Not that he was a saint. I remember him saying of a student who pestered him with his poems during office hours. “I read his poems and begin to wonder what about my fucking commas?”
All the little things that came so naturally to Seamus, the decencies, courtesies, good cheer and attention to the smallest matter add up to one big thing, Seamus, master poet and an even better man.
When he came to our house for dinner as he often did he brought two bottles of wine, flowers and a new book or broadside. Hundreds who had him to dinner could write the identical sentence. Seamus made you feel welcome, Sven Birkerts once said, in your own home. Before the Nobel Prize he lifted any sort of gathering he attended. After the Nobel the lift he gave gained in altitude. We were all brighter and funnier for his presence.
On the Saturday The New York Times ran Seamus’s obituary under a three column-wide black and white photograph—Had there been a larger one since the death of Churchill?—the reader had to find the man I knew in his face because he was absent from the obituary. The Times talked to the poet Paul Muldoon and stopped there. No Helen Vendler, Derek Walcott, John Hume, Jorie Graham or Derek Mahon. Absent Seamus the man, Seamus the poet seemed only a career, a ghost of himself. In England the BBC treated him like an historical figure and again overlooked the lovable and much loved person.
In talking with family and friends who knew Seamus and friends who didn’t, I’ve been telling the same stories. Today is September 13th, a Friday, two weeks after my daughter Marni called with the news of his death. Thirteen was a luck number for Seamus who was born on April 13th and thus became Samuel Beckett’s birthday twin. I’ve thought of Seamus every day over these last two weeks—time to tell the stories I know.
Every obit quotes Robert Lowell’s opinion that Seamus was “the most important poet since Yeats.” For Seamus, Lowell, who had dined with the Heaney’s the night before his death in a New York taxicab, remained a master. We were on our way to have lunch with Charlie and Helen Simic in their New Hampshire home. A fall Sunday. On the way up Seamus wanted to stop at Lowell’s grave in New Hampshire in the Stark family plot off a side road, which I had once visited.
The plot—Lowell’s mother was a Stark–is surrounded by an iron fence with a gate. Lowell is buried next to his mother and father. A simple stone, name, dates and his epitaph, “The immortal is scraped / Unconsenting from the mortal.” Seamus stood silently and took in the stone. Then he looked around for a souvenir—he loved such souvenirs—and spying a birch branch he broke and trimmed it to the size of a baseball bat and swung it once or twice to feel its heft. It had to have the proper weight of the occasion. Later I saw the branch on his Dublin mantelpiece.
And on my last visit to Dublin in June 2007 he showed me a prescription written by William Carlos Williams, a gift from a fan, that he had mounted in glass. I also remember a bow, souvenir of a trip to Japan.
On my first Dublin visit in 1988, my daughter Arden and I stayed with the Heaneys in their Strand Road home. He took us on the tour he gave friends to the Wicklow Mountains and his country house in Glanmore, with a few ruins for diversion. For this ride he managed to get his sons Mick and Chris to come along. We topped a hill and he stopped the car. “Come on.” We trotted into a soggy field toward a tower of peat bricks. Seamus handed me a brick as if to say, “You’ll know you’re in Ireland when you grab hold of this.” It was brown and russet, heavier than I would have thought.
(What he said didn’t sound like him then and doesn’t sound like him now, but these are the words I remember.)
We stopped at a large stone inn, all of us eager for nourishment and the boys eager for a break from the ruins and views they’d seen so many times. We were served before a fire. Delicious food and drink in a dining room that had no other diners. Seamus had called ahead to have the inn opened for us.
Then we stopped at Glanmore, a two-story brick house with a lean-to shaped kitchen that had been grafted on to the back of the house. Seamus wanted a nap and fell fast asleep curled on a blanket chest. His boys let him have an hour’s shuteye before they urged Arden to wake him. She did and he leapt up as if from a deep sleep unsure of where he was. We walked outside and stood before the cattle gate near the road. Rain dripped off it. Seamus said something about how much he liked looking at the beads of rain on the gate’s iron bars.
In Dublin Marie and I woke before everyone else and walked out on the Strand in front of their home and watched the horses being exercised at a gallop. Seamus walked Arden and me down the long approach to that day’s page from the Book of Kells then we visited an exhibition of Viking gold in which we saw the delicate boat that would be the cover of Seeing Things before Marie joined us for a lunch of place at a hotel bar.
Seamus brought me down stairs to the men’s room in the National Library where he wanted me to gape, and gape I did, at the tall, heroic urinals fit for statues of warrior kings. Astonishing! Seamus got from me the whoop of pleasure he expected. We finished that day with pints of dark and bitter Guinness and glasses off whiskey in a bare pub where there was no business but talk and drinking.
Two other memorable moments: Seamus and family and Arden and I entered a restaurant and the diners rose to applaud. As we sat down at our table bottles of champagne went pop and our glasses were filled. Seamus was both delighted and a little embarrassed by the attention. He had a way of bowing his head in thanks that looked a little like hiding. Before dinner one night Marie and I sat in the Heaney kitchen listening to Seamus on the BBC talk about Eliot, a real conversation and not an interview: a casual hour of poetry over the air, a thing not to be encountered in America.
Our daughter Marni graduated from New York University on a May day in 1987. We had been invited to the big, draughty Cambridge house the Heaney’s rented that year. We tried to beg off, the drive, etc. Seamus wouldn’t hear of it. We arrived to find a party; the Irish consul, America’s ambassador to Ireland William Shannon and his wife and Catherine Heaney’s school friends and their parents–nothing literary about the gathering. We joined the table just as dessert was served. Seamus came from the kitchen with champagne bottles in both hands and Chris Heaney brought more bottles. Popping the cork he toasted Marni, and we all raised our glasses.
Many of the famous writers I’ve known need to have the party to come to them. In general famous people need to know that they are known. Not Seamus. I doubt “Famous” would have caught on as a teasing nickname had his first name been Samuel. The rhyme’s a cheap one. He had the gift of spontaneity and making an occasion long before he was awarded the Nobel and afterward he knew how to turn an evening away from himself and toward others. Marie has this gift as well.
One icy February night when Marie was not in Cambridge Seamus came to dinner and we drank more than usual. He was not a heavy drinker, at least in my presence. He was steady, in for the long haul and evenings were usually so lively that however much we drank got burned away in good talk. But this night…well, I drove him to Harvard Square and saw him walk toward Holyoke Center and his room in Adams House.
Two days later I learned he had fallen on slick ice and hurt himself. I found him in a room at Harvard’s infirmary surrounded by Harvard English faculty joshing him about watching his step. There was much laughter in which we joined as he winked at me keeping our evening our secret.
Seamus remembered that fall in this poem he sent out as a Christmas broadside:
But I face the ice this year
With my father’s stick.
On our card he wrote, “I think of this as our poem.” We had a few tipsy evenings after that but none of them got into a poem.
A small pleasure I’ve missed since Seamus stepped down from Harvard was running into him in the late afternoon and having time for a “quick one.” We’d head to Grafton Street, say our hellos to Paul the bartender and huddle in a booth like conspirators. Seamus liked to know what was going on and he enjoyed gossip. Within days of his death I stopped in at Grafton Street. Paul beckoned me to the bar. “We’ve lost a good friend,” he said as he poured me a drink, “They gave him a grand send off.” I’m guessing that the bartenders Seamus introduced me to in Dublin had similar feelings.
I’m kicking myself that I can’t remember more of Seamus’s table talk but then his talk never sounded rehearsed or like he had said the same thing at a dinner the night before. He saved his pronouncements for his books. At least to me he never spoke for the record.
One night we were having a drink before dinner in our living room. Seamus was seated with his back to the door through which came old friend Jackson Braider. He didn’t know Seamus was coming to dinner but seeing his balding head of thinning what hair thought he recognized a friend and gave Seamus a rub on his skull. He was startled; Jackson, recognizing his mistake, gave an embarrassed apology. We laughed and so, while Jackson babbled a few words, did Seamus. That night, napkin tucked in at his neck and spread across his chest as he always wore it, Seamus dug into Beverly’s spicy mussel soup. He was partial, as he liked to remind us, to bivalves of all sorts.
In June 2007 I got to Dublin for two days. I had come from the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, England where Seamus was well known. The cabbie who drove me to the train station asked me where I was going.
“Are you a poet?”
“Will you be seeing Seamus Heaney?
“We’re friends. I’m staying with him.”
“A great man. I’ve had the honor of driving him quite a few times. Give him my best.”
When I recounted this to Seamus he remembered Jim the cabbie.
Seamus was recovering from a stroke he’d had at the end of 2006. His sleep pattern was irregular, in conversation he lost a few words which annoyed him, his hands trembled and he seemed troubled by vague anxieties. He was tentative in a way I’d never seen him be.
After lunch we went to a pub to have a drink with Seamus’s older son Mick. We sat in a sort of confessional booth just inside the front door. It was private and snug yet open to the publican. We could hear that the place was full of women. They were celebrating having run in Dublin’s first marathon to benefit breast cancer research. Word got out that Seamus was in the house and one of the bartender’s brought in a book for him to sign. “She’d appreciate it,” assured the bartender, and gave the woman’s name. Seamus inscribed it to her a he surely inscribed thousands of his books as requested.
On the first morning we walked the along the strand. Five minutes into the walk the first neighbor stopped us. “It’s grand to see you Seamus on this fine day. Grand to see that you’re feeling yourself again.” The third or fourth encounter sent Seamus back home.
He didn’t feel like accompanying me to the Lucian Freud exhibition at Dublin’s new museum of modern art so he provided friends, Dennis O’Driscoll and his wife Julie Callaghan for that task. The museum was closed that day but open for us with the director there to greet me and make sure we had everything we needed.
That night Seamus, Marie and I went to dinner in a new restaurant opened by friends in the area of Dublin’s canals. Seamus made sure the hosts knew I was the husband of a renowned cook and knew Boston and New York restaurants. The hosts joined us for an Armagnac and the conversation turned to their business and a planned trip to New York and where might they dine.
After dinner we walked along a canal to the seated statue of Patrick Kavanaugh. Seamus posed next to Kavanaugh then stood to read his poem carved into the monument to the poet. I remembered Seamus’s story of Kavanaugh’s coming to read in Belfast. Seamus picked him up at the train station in a tiny second hand car he’d just bought on time. Kavanaugh couldn’t get over a poet having a car and such a young poet and such a grand car! And he had a family did he and a car for the family! Kavanaugh cuffed him, playful but aggressive, which Seamus took as a reprimand for breaking the poet’s code. Not entirely serious on Kavanaugh’s part but serious enough.
There will be much written about his poetry. I have to offer only a few general observations. No American poet of his generation came from the near 19th century rural farm life in which Seamus was reared. His memoir “Mossbawn” is of a world into which the 20th century, in the presence of American troops on their way to World War II, enters and will change all. The intensity of his poems about his mother’s tin scoop, his father’s suits, the forge and the pump, the things he knew as he grew up this amplitude of feeling is deep and broad. He did not have to dig for these subjects or his powerful, measured response to them.
I have no idea what sort of poems Seamus would have written had modernism not skirted his part of Ireland. The great Irish writers before Seamus, Shaw, Joyce and Beckett, had to leave Ireland to create their work. As did Oscar Wilde before them. One of the abiding strengths and pleasures of Seamus’s poems is their sense of place and the language that comes with it. His Irish has a rich local tang. This is not a matter of words alone but of the native accent that never left his poems. You heard this in every reading he gave.
I wonder if Seamus, who must have given several hundred readings, read aloud all the poems he had written. Some reader will go to the Internet and piece together a lifetime of the man’s music. He had a great ear, an outwardly directed ear for the language of his tribe, for the words men actually use and a large vision for this music to serve.
When I think of his poems I imagine the snedder, spirit-level, sledge-hammer, his father’s ashplant, and his mother’s tin scoop buried “past its gleam.” Out of these he managed to make something of equal weight, not just something remembered but a present thing by which to locate ourselves in this world.
Writing this I went to Robert Lowell’s short memoirs of his friends Randall Jarrell and John Berryman. They are beautifully written, pinging with Lowell’s quick intellect. He saw his friends as poets first involved with him in the art of poetry. He mentions Berryman’s wife once and has nothing to say about Jarrell’s. Most of those who knew Seamus well knew his wife Marie. She was his balance, an equal partner in life but his opposite with an agreeable edge to her, his compliment.—his “four walls and a ring.”