Seamus Heaney, 1939–2013
What happens next
Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
“The Rain Stick” from The Spirit Level, 1996
Like so many of Seamus Heaney’s admirers, I feel the loss of this great poet personally, as though he was family. The news spread quickly on Friday morning, August 30, through phone calls, emails, and online messages. During that weekend we had our private wakes, reading his poems to each other and sharing memories.
On one phone call from my son Sean who teaches English in Newington School, Sydney, Australia, we talked about a memorial reading he would conduct in his senior English class. His students had studied Heaney’s poetry for their national exam. We decided that poems such as “Follower” about Heaney’s relationship with his father would be meaningful for the boys. From Heaney’s first book, Death of a Naturalist, the poem describes his father, an expert at plowing, and his small son’s desire to “grow up and plough.” But “all I ever did was follow / In his broad shadow round the farm.” Those senior boys could perhaps relate to the poem in Heaney’s final book, Human Chain, when he remembers not embracing his father when he was leaving for college. “That should have been the first, but it did not happen.”
My other son Brendan was shattered hearing of Heaney’s death. He teaches at Indiana State University, his specialty being Irish Literature, and has written numerous articles on Heaney. He had attended a special weekend honoring Seamus Heaney at Emory University in March, and he commented on the poet’s powerful reading, which somehow seemed to be a valediction as Heaney finished the reading with the last poem in Human Chain, “A Kite for Aibhin,” who is his granddaughter. The kite climbs higher “until string breaks and – separate, elate – / The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.” The poem recalls the early poem for his sons, “A Kite for Michael and Christopher.” Heaney had come full circle.
Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006, but he was back to a busy schedule, giving poetry readings and attending events. I watched his funeral and felt one with the mourners. I was moved when his son Michael revealed his father’s last words in a text message to his wife Marie minutes before he died : Noli Timere, “Do not be afraid.” In his eulogy, Paul Muldoon spoke of Heaney’s “unparalleled capacity to “sweep us all up in his arms,” a quality which gave his poetry readings a special intimacy.
The first reading I attended was in Columbia, Maryland, at the HoCoPoLitSo Irish night in February 1994. Schools were closed due to heavy snow. As teachers at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, my husband Des and I were happy to have a snow day, but were worried that the reading might be cancelled. After numerous phone calls I found out the reading was still on, and Des and I braved the treacherous conditions for this special event. Along with the enthusiastic audience we were indeed “swept up in his arms” as he read, and later at a reception in Heaney’s honor we had the privilege of chatting with him. He had not yet won the Nobel Prize, and when someone mentioned that he might receive that honor, he rolled his eyes and spoke instead of his admiration for the great Polish poet, Czesław Miłosz, who had recently won that award. He shared a few words in Gaelic with my husband. He answered my questions about the poem, “The Early Purges,” and signed my copy of that poem: “To Kathie and her students.” With grace and a mischievous smile he even posed with us for photographs. The words generosity, kindness, and humility stand out in the many tributes to Heaney, and we experienced the warmth of those qualities on that cold, snowy night.
My husband and I also felt a personal connection with Heaney because Des was from Dundalk, Ireland – “the original Dundalk” he liked to say – and we could relate to the Irish landscapes and events in his poems. Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, and we were around the same age. We were married in 1966, one year after Seamus and Marie were married, and our three children’s births paralleled the births of the three Heaney children, Michael, Christopher, and Catherine Ann. We followed his career from the publication of his first book, Death of a Naturalist in 1966, to the publication of his final book, Human Chain in 2010, and on each trip to Ireland brought back his latest book.
Seamus Heaney, the eldest of nine children, was raised on the family farm at Mossbawn, where his father was a farmer and cattle dealer. As a Catholic in Northern Ireland, he grew up in the midst of sectarian and religious conflicts and the “Troubles” that have plagued that area. In 1972, he and his family moved south to County Wicklow near Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, although he denied fleeing the situation in Northern Ireland. Much of his poetry is rooted in his Irish childhood in the rural County Derry landscape, but his poetry through the years has extended far beyond. His translations of Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante as well as Medieval Irish works and Beowulf reach back to antiquity, while his interest in different cultures and his friendships with world poets show his global outreach. He delivered the eulogy at Russian poet Joseph Brodsky’s funeral; he had close ties with Polish poet, Czesław Miłosz, and his poem “Out of This World” is in memory of Miłosz. There are poems in memory of Pablo Neruda, Rainer Rilke, Cavafy, Zbigniew Herbert, and other Eastern European poets. His fascination with the bogs of Scandinavia with their preserved bodies led to poems like “The Tollund Man” with his “peat-brown head.” Recent poems commemorate world events such as “In Iowa” and “Hofn” which warn of climate change. “Anything Can Happen”, based on one of Horace’s odes, laments 9 / 11 and its “tallest towers. . . overturned” as though by Jupiter who “galloped his thunder cart and his horses / Across a clear blue sky.” Though poet of the world, he constantly returns in his poems to the countryside and the people of his childhood.
In August 2003, Des and I were fortunate to receive a grant from McDonogh School to tour Heaney’s countryside in County Derry, Northern Ireland. We visited Heaney landmarks – Castledawson, Toomebridge, Magherafelt – and I look through the album full of our photographs to illustrate poems we would read in our English classes. There is Toome Road where the British armored cars came “warbling along on powerful tyres, / All camouflaged with broken alder branches, / And headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets.” There are the photos of the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative by the River Bann, celebrated by Heaney in his poem “Eelworks,” where eels slithered through the factory chute, some slipping over the sides and plopping at our feet.
One morning we stopped at the family farm where clothes were hanging out on the line and a man was working in the field accompanied by cows. It was Heaney’s brother Hugh and he chatted with us at length. Pointing to the large house on the hill across the way, he told us it was the house of the British landowner and the subject of the poem “The Other Side.” He said that his brother, Seamus, was at a special dinner in Dublin and admitted that he liked the early poems rooted in farm country better than the later poems which were harder for him to follow. In the photo he looks like his brother Seamus, and a cow at the fence dominates the picture of the two of us.
In my Heaney album there are photos of old barns with rusted tools such as the spade in the poem “Digging” with which his father “rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep / to scatter now potatoes that we picked.” I searched out wells and watery places to illustrate “Personal Helicon” with his love of “old pumps with buckets and windlasses / . . . the dark drops, the trapped sky, the smells / of waterweed, fungus, and dank moss.” The Anahorish Primary School which he attended and where I like to think he wrote his first poem is no longer standing, so I took a picture of the empty field where it once was and a picture of the new school as well. Heaney celebrates this first school in his poem “Alphabets.”
There he draws smoke with chalk the whole first week.
Then draws the forked stick that they call a Y
This is writing. A swan’s neck and swan’s back
Make the a he can see now as well as sky.
We visited the graveyard in Bellaghy, where Seamus Heaney is now buried with his family, including his father Patrick and his mother Margaret. He is beside his brother Christopher who was struck by a car and died when he was four while Seamus was away on scholarship at St. Columb’s School in the city of Derry. Christopher is the subject of one of Heaney’s most popular and poignant poems, “Mid Term Break,” with its final line: “a four foot box, a foot for every year.” In my photograph of the gravestone the family members are all named. In his many poems about friends and family, we get to know them. Heaney lets us feel the emotion of his mother’s death with his father saying more to her than he had said in their life together, and at her death they “all knew one thing by being there. / The space we stood around had been emptied / Into us to keep.” In the same way, the death of the poet leaves an empty space, but his poems have been emptied into us to keep. It is poems like these that make us feel as if we are also family members.
Not long after that special trip, I attended a wonderful poetry reading by Heaney at Goucher College on October 24, 2003. At its conclusion when audience members could ask questions, one woman requested that Heaney read the poem from The Cure at Troy with the lines:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
The next day we read this poem in class and I asked the students if they could tell what historical events might have inspired the poem. Paris Gray raised his hand and replied, “The release of Nelson Mandela.” Paris was right – Heaney had told his Goucher audience that mainly Mandela’s release, along with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and peace negotiations in Northern Ireland had led to the poem in which he goes on to write:
So hope for a great sea change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
In that poem full of hope for the world, the word “miracles” resonates for Heaney sees miracles in common things. In what is considered Heaney’s last interview in June 2013, he spoke of being earthbound and grounded, a quality we see in those many poems that describe the rural landscape, the farmlands and bogs of his County Derry home. Everyday things of that homeland fill the poems: shovel, spade, pitchfork, pump, well, sofa, oysters, blackbird, churn, kettle, scythe, plow, forge, anvil, rain stick. Yet, though grounded, these ordinary things exude a magic, the way the beaten iron in the darkness of the blacksmith’s forge releases a “fantail of sparks.” and the anvil becomes an altar where he – the blacksmith / poet – “expends himself in shape and music.” And the sense of the miraculous can deepen time after time, seeing these simple things or hearing the music of the rain stick – and the music of a poem
I began every poetry course I taught with Heaney’s poem, “The Rain Stick.” I brought three rain sticks to class, one enormous one from Costa Rica and two smaller ones. Eager student volunteers turned the rain sticks while I read the poem. We saw poetry as “a music you never would have known / To listen for.” – a music from common grit and dry seeds flowing through a cactus stalk which you could listen to again and again for “What happens next / Is undiminished for having happened once, / Twice, ten, a thousand times before.” I think of Heaney’s collaboration with musician, Liam O’Flynn over the years. I attended a program at the Kennedy Center entitled “The Piper and the Poet” on May 17, 2000. Heaney’s readings were accompanied by and alternated with the music of O’Flynn playing the Uilliean pipes. O’Flynn’s haunting music was the perfect accompaniment to prayers and readings at the funeral mass at Donnybrook Church of the Sacred Heart in Dublin on September 1. The piper’s music echoed the “spirit music” in the poem “The Given Note,” the only poem read at the service, in which a fisherman goes alone into the “most westerly Blasket” Island and hearing strange music, played it on his violin.
So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of the wind off mid-Atlantic.
Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely
Rephrases itself into the air.
Heaney honors another fisherman, Louis O’Neill, in the poem “Casualty” which portrays violence in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in the city of Derry, resulting in the death of O’Neill when the pub where O’Neill often went to drink is bombed. Heaney and the elderly fisherman would often chat about fishing, eels, horse and cart races, sometimes politics. At the conclusion of the poem, there is the music of the “purring of the hearse” which becomes the “slow consolation / of a dawdling engine” from the fishing boat in which Heaney and O’Neill went out fishing together.
I tasted freedom with him,
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond. . .
Seamus Heaney, may you find peace “somewhere, well out, beyond. . .”
© Kathleen Corcoran
Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, in County Derry, Northern Ireland. His first collection, Death of a Naturalist, appeared in 1966. Since then, he published over twenty books of poetry, criticism, and translations which have established him as one of the major poets of his generation. Heaney taught at Harvard University from 1985 to 2006 and was the Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1989 to 1994. In 1995, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” Seamus Heaney died on August 30, 2013.
Kathleen Corcoran lives in Owings Mills, Maryland, and teaches at McDonogh School. She is the author of a Baltimore Artscape award-winning chapbook, Bloodroot, and received 2005 and 2011 Maryland State poetry grants. Her poetry has been published in such publications as Passager, Baltimore Review, Little Patuxent Review, Freefall, and Naugatuck River Review.