Reading the many obits and tributes for Seamus Heaney has been occupying my time. The NYTimes obit is great; herewith, a few choice bits:
The eldest of nine children of a cattle dealer, Seamus Justin Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, at Mossbawn, his family’s farm in County Derry, west of Belfast. The farm’s name would appear throughout his work. Mr. Heaney’s intoxication with language, he said in a 1974 lecture, “Feeling into Words,” “began very early when my mother used to recite lists of affixes and suffixes, and Latin roots, with their English meanings, rhymes that formed part of her schooling in the early part of the century.”
Later in the lecture, he ventured an alternative scenario: “Maybe it was stirred by the beautiful sprung rhythms of the old BBC weather forecast: Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Shetland, Faroes, Finisterre; or with the gorgeous and inane phraseology of the catechism; or with the litany of the Blessed Virgin that was part of the enforced poetry in our household: Tower of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted.”
More on Heaney from around the web:
From WGBH/PBS’s Poetry Everywhere, a Poetry Break with the poet reading “Blackberry Picking.”
And a long, rewarding ramble of a piece by Andrew O’Hagan from the LRB about a trip he, Heaney, and Karl Miller, the founding editor of the LRB and long-time friend and publisher of Heaney, took around 2000 I think. They set out to drive around the Celtic Lands, drinking attending to the “ground of literature” and the ground itself. One of the best things I’ve ever read in the paper: given the LRB’s level of writing, that’s saying something.
One of many fine bits:
We passed by Offaly and Seamus asked me if I knew what a Biffo was.
‘It means a Big Ignorant Fucker from Offaly.’
I was looking out at the landscape as we drove beyond the Irish midlands. If you come from a Protestant country, where the hedges are trimmed and evened-up to within an inch of their lives, the mad tangle of Irish hedges is striking. I imagine Scotland’s hedges speak of order and repression, of a land heavily demarcated, parsed and owned, but in Ireland a certain bucolic anarchy obtains. Ireland presents itself as an entity that might again revolt against the people. The landscape appears to have a mind, a vengeful one, an Old Testament one, if you think of the potato famine.
Karl and Seamus were discussing the notion of writers being either ‘branch men’ or ‘head office’. This came from a story Seamus was telling about T.S. Eliot. Lloyds Bank decided to throw a party a few years ago for Mrs Eliot, and Seamus went as the representative poet. Some knight or other was giving a speech and he said that Eliot wasn’t the only poet ever to work for Lloyds. Cardiff’s Vernon Watkins gave a lot of time to his writing but refused to take days off, preferring to come to his desk. Then again, the gentleman said, ‘Watkins was a branch man and Eliot was very much head office.’
We stopped for lunch at a favourite place of Seamus’s called Moran’s. They gave us a table to ourselves in the snug. There was a nice bottle of Alsace and we all three had chowder. Seamus once wrote a poem after coming here, called ‘Oysters’:
We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.
Worth reading every bit, and not behind the paywall.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.