Seamus Heaney

Recently, Seamus Heaney won the Forward Prize. This turn of events is not a surprise, Heaney being a Nobel laureate (1995) and winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize (2006). In a selfish way, though, the news reminded me of how often I think of Heaney.

I think Heaney is the finest poet writing in English today, the greatest poet of his generation, and certainly the most popular (his books make up two thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK). As an undergraduate, I fell in love with “Limbo,” and that poem led me to discover Heaney’s amazing body of work:

Limbo

Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning.

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of her cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

But as I said, my reasons for thinking of him are selfish. When I was an MFA student at the University of Florida (Gainesville), Heaney came to conduct a poetry workshop and reading. Another MFA student, Ralph Savarese, had corresponded with Heaney for a few years, and he spoke highly of the man’s integrity and kindness. I don’t recall the exact details, but Ralph had won a poetry contest judged by Heaney, and Heaney had continued to correspond with Ralph despite the obvious difference in standing between them.

On the day of the workshop (held in a conference room on the fourth floor of Turlington Hall), my poem happened to be the first on the packet Heaney was to comment upon. He read my poem out loud — I do not, unfortunately, remember which poem that was — but I do know it was nothing special. Heaney smiled, shifted on his seat after he was done. He smiled some more. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Here’s something.” He compared the poet (he did not know it was me, sitting a few feet away, looking at him without letting on so much depended on his judgment) to a boy going out into the woods and trying out owl calls. Apparently boys go out in the woods and try out owl calls where Heaney came from; it was news to me. He said that you have to try and make the owl call convincing, so that eventually you can get an owl to respond and come to you. He said the poet (that is to say, me) was trying out his owl calls. And he added, “We feel safe in this poet’s hands.”

He didn’t say that the owl call wasn’t quite there yet. He didn’t have to. I imagine this was not a metaphor he used exclusively on this occasion. When you travel and lecture as much as Heaney does, you are bound to repeat yourself. I do not, in other words, consider this experience unique.

No. What strikes me about it is that I can’t remember anyone ever saying that my poetry wasn’t quite there yet as gracefully and with so much compassion as Heaney did that afternoon. His smile, his open body language, the fully engaged look in his eyes: you can’t fake that. It’s as though he walked through past the words on the page to some kind of existential mode of being in which owl calls were a goal in and of themselves and getting them perfect wasn’t as important as trying. And as far as I could tell, he felt I wasn’t done trying.

I agreed with him. I had suspected throughout my MFA that my poetry wasn’t there yet. I also suspected that it would probably never be. What I wanted Heaney to say was something like “F**K!! This is the best f***ing poem I’ve ever f***ing read. F***king genius!!” Only much, much later, did it occur to me it’s not a bad thing that Seamus Heaney thinks you’re not done trying.

At his reading that night, I remember his use of the word “Sausalito” in a poem. To me, the word was commonplace Spanish, a place-name in California lost on English speakers who do not know it means “a small willow grove,” (a “sauzal” is a place were willows grow; the ending “ito” denotes a small one; the “z” has been Anglicized to an “s”). I remember my ears pricking up at the word. I remember thinking, here’s a throwaway word which a poet has picked up on and imbued with significance. What words do I know, I asked myself, that set in the right light could be poetry? I hadn’t quite thought of things that way until that moment. And I think it had to do with the owl-call anecdote and its ramifications.

And then, Heaney went on to read a poem about boys thinking words traveled along telephone lines like drops of rain, boys who could find nothing of worth in their imaginative, unique, mind-blowing view of the world:

The Railway Children

When we climbed the slopes of the cutting
We were eye-level with the white cups
Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.

Like lovely freehand they curved for miles
East and miles west beyond us, sagging
Under their burden of swallows.

We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle.

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And of course, it is harder for a rich man (or a grown up) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, and Jesus did say to let the children come to him, for theirs is the Kingdom.

That poem crystallized what Heaney taught me during his visit. I wondered, in my status as a poet-child, what do I know that is worth knowing? Surely, we all have secret knowledge, a secret place in the forest, a secret owl call, a secret visitation upon which we can draw for poetry. At least I wanted to believe it after Heaney had told me so.

But here is the selfish reason why I think of Heaney so often (and herein lies the reason for this piece). Later that night after the reading, at the reception at the English Department chair’s house, I came upon Seamus Heaney standing in the living room. A circle of people had formed of which Heaney was a link, all come to pay homage or to bask. And on the edge of his peripheral vision, Heaney saw me and recognized me from the earlier workshop, and he stepped to the side and made room for me in the circle of people, and he smiled, and said, “Ah, here’s a poet.”

Here’s a poet. An MFA student. Moreover, an MFA student with no magazine credits, no books published, nothing but attempted owl calls to his credit. And Heaney said, “Ah, here’s a poet.”

That, to me, speaks more of his humanity than of anything having to do with me. I do hope he was right. And I sure think of him and his kindness and generosity often.

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