If the people we are now could hear what we were saying “The Gaeltacht” Seamus Heaney
I don’t know Heaney as I should know Heaney. Under pressure I could make a fair stab at a few lines from Death of a Naturalist and mumble something about what an important influence he was on poetry here in Ireland and in the big world beyond. I can imagine how his death must have affected those closest to him and those who can trace his influence through their own literary journey. Dylan is my Heaney and to lose him, (which seems somewhat inevitable these days), would feel like an amputation. Lines from Bob Dylan’s songs, particularly the early records, often come to me quicker than my own thoughts and I can only admit that Bob has said, or sung, almost everything better than I could ever manage. The day that Dylan dies I will call in sick and sit in a quiet room and think about how he has provided a subtext to almost every major incident of my last ten years. Though it will feel like losing a close family member, I have to admit that I’ve never had, and most likely never will have, any inclination to meet the man. Dylan has always been driven and genius; undoubtedly alluring but not the sort of person I’d want to be stuck in a lift with.
In contrast what struck me most about Seamus Heaney’s passing was how little mention was made of his work. It was taken for granted that the cannon of literature he left behind was powerful and ageless and of a quality rarely committed to paper. In radio interviews and on television his peers and friends, again and again, chose to speak of his character; not as an aside to his work, but rather as an intrinsic part of who he was both as poet and man. Heaney spoke highly of others. He was generous with his time, his talent, his humour. He was often side-tracked by the ineffable pull of humanity; intrigued enough to compromise schedule and routine in pursuit of a first hand encounter with a friend or stranger’s story. Heaney left a legacy; a challenger to the poets and writers who would follow, faltering in his footsteps. It was a call, as I see it, to bravery, to community, to critique in the humblest and most challenging fashion, to bold engagement with the honest and ugly world outside the corridors of academia.
Last night the students of the Seamus Heaney Creative Writing Centre at Queen’s paid tribute to Heaney with a simple and moving reading of his work. As they filed up to the lectern one at a time and ploughed the decades for poem after beautifully crafted poem I wasn’t thinking about Seamus Heaney. I was watching their faces and the way they carry themselves when reading, the particular and deliberate intonations of their voices, the way their feet turn inwards under pressure. Almost every one of these readers was familiar to me. They have, over the last few years, become my community. They are the people who champion me when I feel like folding up and becoming something more lucrative; a graphic designer most likely. They are the people who slap me gently with red wine and graceful emails when there is more to be said or less to be said or I simply need to get out of the way and allow the stories. They are people I have laughed with, people I have cried with and people I am proud to call friends. Belfast has been exceptionally kind to me this last season in offering up such a great cloud of writerly witnesses and sometimes it is worth pausing to make sure people know they are appreciated.
There’s a temptation in the arts to favour self above community; a mistaken belief that success is an isolated experience and only comes through deliberate competition with others. Seamus Heaney left behind him both an enormous amount of beautiful poetry and also the testimony of hundreds, thousands perhaps, of people who knew him and loved him and experienced his tangible generosity as an artist and a human being. Seamus Heaney offered proof, if any is needed that, the artist’s natural state is that of engaged and honest community. At the end of a very hurtling season I have paused to consider the community of writers and artists which I am part of. I didn’t choose them, nor did they choose me but I am blessed to have stumbled into their muddled midst and I am hopeful for what we will become as we make our huddled mistakes and read ourselves louder than we will every be and, someday, look back with later eyes and think how young and lucky and early we are just now.