And yet, of course, not impossible: of course, too possible, too much the reality of what we would always have to face one day, one morning waking across time zones, stumbling upon radio tributes, answering the phone to the have you heard, to the gut-punch, to the heart-bolt: he is gone.
Our laureate. As though that could ever be a word which could get at the marvel of him. There is, probably, no single word for the marvel of him. Only perhaps his name, alive today on countless lips, uttered with sadness and fondness and gratitude and disbelief; sparking and flaring across countless status updates, countless tweets, in countless slow nods and headshakes in shops and schools and kitchens and hallways and forecourts and farmyards. I know of a wedding in Wicklow today where his will be the name on the air as the guests wait for the bride to arrive; of a gathering in Rathowen this weekend where his poems will be read aloud in hushed pubs; of a music festival in Stradbally where lines studied at school twenty years ago will be traded like—well, like the kinds of things that are more usually traded at music festivals. (And he would be in the middle of them if he could, you know, marveling—for that was his register—at Björk and St. Vincent and David Byrne, with a sage word about My Bloody Valentine lyrics, with a wink and a buck-up for the young lads from the Strypes.)
(A tree must have fallen somewhere in the night. In the August darkness, a star must have flickered its warning.)
He was loved. Beloved. Whether he was met with as a name on a page, or as a voice from a podium, or as a cherished friend or fellow artist, Seamus Heaney moved into the lives of those who encountered him—those countless lives—and he made a difference that will matter forevermore. The difference, for many, was poetry itself. The difference is in those lines, the way they come to mind at moments of worry, or of beauty, or of heartache and of sorrow; today they come to mind like prayers learned in childhood, his lines, so many of them, rushing in as breath is caught, as mind reels and whirls. On Facebook all morning they have been appearing like cut flowers laid at a gable wall, the poems and the lines that have been, for so many people, talismans, carried close to the heart.
Conscience. Guardian. Wisdom itself; kindness personified. Like so many, I have precious memories of him. For a few years, I ran a poetry festival in Dublin, a job which mainly involved writing to great poets and asking them to come and read from their work. Not a week after I started the job, it was communicated to me by a third party that if I needed help reaching anyone, or with any other aspect of the festival, Seamus Heaney would be delighted to help in any way that he could, but only if I wanted his help; he did not wish to impose. By reply, I wrote a fairly formal letter—keeping my lines straight, my grammar careful—and posted it from New York; then worried that I had not put enough postage on the envelope, and wrote another letter and posted that one. The reply came in a text message from the man himself, wry and funny and vivid with generosity, and making the point, above all: I’m here. I text. I’m nothing if not approachable. It’s no big deal.
But it was a big deal. And it was a bigger deal still that his warmth and his accessibility made it seem almost normal. Everywhere he went, he was known; everywhere he went, he was approached for a handshake, or an autograph, or a hello. For a long time, until a stroke in 2006 necessitated a slight easing-off of public appearances, public availability, he gave everything he had in this regard; he shook every hand, signed every title page, smiled for every unsteady camera, listened to every story of common acquaintance or of attempted poetry or of moments found and recognized and treasured in his lines; moments, say, like that childhood morning with his mother he wrote of in “Clearances”: “When all the others were away at Mass / I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.” Or that clamor of siblings, in “A Sofa in the Forties,” all playing at train on top of the furniture, “Elbows going like pistons … Our speed and distance were inestimable.” Or, maybe, darker moments, like the day of a young brother’s death in “Mid-Term Break,” a poem, with its tight fist of sorrow, its “angry tearless sighs,” learned by almost every Irish child in school, or the “neighbourly murder” of “Funeral Rites,” a poem pressed deep into the skin torn by sectarian warfare in his native Northern Ireland, in which the speaker talks of how
we pine for ceremony
the temperate footsteps
of a cortège, winding past
each blinded home.
Over the years that I ran the Dublin festival, Seamus was always there; attending every reading, himself giving wondrous readings or introductions to other poets, giving glowing encouragement to the younger ones (I recall Paul Batchelor, the English poet then on his first collection, shaking with happiness and incredulity after being taken aside for an admiring word from the great man), spiriting some of them away, even, for secret jaunts (I have, somewhere, the photos Henri Cole and C. D. Wright sent me afterwards of their laughing, windswept morning in Glendalough), bringing the whole lot of them, all twenty or twenty-five of them, plus partners and newborns and hangers-on, to his house on Strand Road for Saturday morning coffee. On one such morning, I rested my hand on the top of an armchair and found myself touching a fur pelt, part of an animal’s coat; “Oh, Ted Hughes brought us that one time,” said Marie, Seamus’s wife, and I looked at my hand, tingling at the fingertips, and I looked around the room and I saw it, with a master at its center: poetry, living, and layered, and level to its task.
“That there’s such a thing as truth and it can be told—slant; that subjectivity is not to be theorized away and is worth defending; that poetry itself has virtue, in the first sense of possessing a quality of moral excellence and in the sense also of possessing inherent strength by reason of its sheer made-upness, its integritas, consonantia and claritas.”
That was how Seamus Heaney answered the question of what poetry had taught him—a question asked, in the brilliant 2008 book-length interview (a conversation and an autobiography) Stepping Stones, by the late poet and critic Dennis O’Driscoll. If there is a heaven, there will—to coin a phrase familiar to anyone who has been to an Irish poetry festival—be pints there today, with Hughes and Miłosz and O’Driscoll and all the others, and even before a glass is lifted, Seamus Heaney will have put line and incantation on all he sees. Raise your own glass to him this evening, if you feel so inclined.
Oh, Seamus. Thank you: a thousand thank yous. And codladh sámh.
Belinda McKeon’s debut novel, Solace, won the 2011 Faber Prize. She teaches at Barnard College and lives in Brooklyn.