Sunday, 1 September 2013

THE IRREPLACEABLE


Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

Although I’m not blogging regularly at the moment (see previous post) I felt I had to mourn and celebrate the passing of the writer, Seamus Heaney, who has been called the greatest Irish poet since WB Yeats.

I studied Seamus Heaney’s earlier books for my English degree and I bought all his subsequent volumes of poetry as soon as they were published.  I eagerly devoured the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones – those wonderful enlightening interviews on almost every aspect of Heaney’s life and work.  What a lot he packed into those 74 years.

I taught Heaney’s poetry many times.  One course that was particularly memorable was when I was working for Lancaster University’s Department of Continuing Education.  It was held in the medieval Prior’s Room of Carlisle Cathedral.  Afterwards I wrote this poem.  It’s dedicated to one of my students.  We had just read “A Constable Calls” and I asked, “What do you call those non-metric measures?” She gave me the word - imperial.

Poetry class: reading Seamus Heaney

For Ruth Ansell Davis

The poems are as familiar to me
as the boundary fence where black cattle hairs
or faded threads of a dead man’s jacket
snag on barbed stars.

The sound of bells tumbles from the cathedral,
Viburnum tinus scatters a mulch of petals
hinting pale rose pink in the ash leaves’ brown.
The prior’s room is empty –

just the painted ceiling and the silent books.
Then we arrive, minds like a blank page or
bare wooden boards.  We read, print gets airborne. 
An anchor to catch

in the sea bed, a hook in the fish’s mouth,
anything which might connect with us –
an old sofa, goose’s wing, tarmac road,
imperial measures.

I heard Seamus Heaney read three times.  The last reading was in St Oswald’s Church at Grasmere on 1 August 2010. I remember a fellow member of Cumbrian Poets saying to me afterwards, “I wonder if that is the last time we will hear him read”.  I turned up my diary entry for that day.  His reading was a retrospective: he read the first poem from Death of a Naturalist and the last poem in District and Circle and “Miracle” from what would become his last collection, Human Chain.  He included the moving “Mid Term Break” about the sudden death of his young brother - he spoke it from memory.

He had already suffered a stroke.  He looked frailer and even his white hair was quieter, his presence a still spirit.  But the hour-long reading held us spellbound as if he was sustained from within by the light of poetry. 

I have just started to re-read District and Circle.  The dedication is to Ann Saddlemyer, the Canadian academic who owned Glanmore Cottage and rented it to Seamus Heaney before he bought it from her. 

                                    Call her Augusta
                  Because we arrived in August, and from now on
                  This month’s baled hay and blackberries and combines
                  Will spell Augusta’s bounty.

Time has come full circle and now, at the end of August, Seamus Heaney has gone.

Carol Ann Duffy called Seamus Heaney “irreplaceable” – she was right.