Tribute to poet Seamus Heaney, kindly genius in Irish tweed
Memories from Harvard days of a man who instilled in his students a love of language and a love of life
THE NEWS of Seamus Heaney's death will touch many people - lovers of poetry, but also those lucky people, I among them, who attended his lectures at Harvard in the mid-80s, and watched him walk down the street to the local pub afterwards. He looked like the Pied Piper, his smitten followers trailing after him. Half of those packing the lecture hall to the rafters were members of the community; just half of us were Harvard students. He had a hush-hush policy of openness.
The course was on modern poetry. He made even the prickliest modern poet - Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes - understandable as he read to us each day in his easy, warm Irish lilt, his ruffled hair and tweed jacket so unassuming. I'm sure his aura of calm imprinted on all of us the idea that real genius is grounded and kind. His humility was absolute. He signed his early work Incertus - Latin for 'uncertain' - and when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1995, he was sure it was a prank call.
Exclusivity, snobbery and the insidious idea that a privileged education makes you superior - all those things that give Harvard (or Oxbridge) a bad name - were just not his thing. This was a lesson in itself.
He used to sit at the top of the stairs leading to the library at Adams House, the 'artsy' dormitory, watching the students pass on their way to the dining hall. He only perched above us to get a better view; he had a distinctive hint of a smile - one you can see in photographs of him on dust-jackets - but in real life, it felt like he wasn't just watching over us, but giving us all the benefit of the doubt.
He bought a painting of mine, called Snap, and wrote me a postcard, thanking me for it, saying he would keep it safe, and urging me to “draw, draw, draw”. He believed the only way to proceed was to practise. Success, career, connections, contacts - these just weren't part of his vocabulary. He identified with the farmer: working the land wasn't that far afield from the way he practised his art, and so his poetry is full of references to the hoe, the rain stick, the spirit level, digging.
I've just opened my copy of The Spirit Level, dedicated to the critic Helen Vendler, his great friend, and I'm amazed to see Seamus Heaney's own handwritten lines on the frontispiece. I must have asked him to sign my copy, and instead, he wrote (quoting from his poem, Postscript): "You are neither here nor there,/A hurry through which known and strange things pass/As big soft buffetings come at the car side-ways/And catch the heart off guard and blow it open."
Two or three of us were eating lunch at Adams House when Heaney asked to join us. Our group were all dancers, except me, and I was telling them how my mother had taken me to see Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn dance Swan Lake when I was a little girl, and how at the end I had tried leaping off my seat, because it looked so easy. Heaney listened, and smiled that smile of his - he seemed amused by our youth, generally - and said that that was the trick, "to make it look easy".
We asked him if he missed Ireland, and he said he missed his wife, more than anything. We quietly read every poem with references to a woman with hair that shone in the morning light, with secret recognition. The thing was, Heaney made words and language magic - his words weren't wasted, or too casual. He instilled in us a love of language, and a love of life, which readers of his poetry are bound to share.
Three of my favourite lines, ones I quoted to my grief-stricken brother Noah soon after our father died in Canada, hold true for Heaney too, and could be his epitaph. In a poem of three short lines from his volume Seeing Things, Heaney writes: "Dangerous pavements./But I face the ice this year/with my father's stick."
- The Spirit Level and Seeing Things were both published by Faber and Faber.