It is not a secret that of the immense 20th Century poets, Heaney was far and away my favourite. When I saw him at the bar in Stratford during the interval of a performance of Julius Caesar, I could not contain myself.
“Are you Seamus Heaney?” I asked
“I am.” he said. I was smitten. If ever a woman could be in love with a man a good 30 years her senior, I was that woman. I’d studied Heaney for A level and then again at undergraduate. I’d marked countless exam papers attempting to analyse his poems. He was endlessly anthologised. He was everywhere.
Despite his popularity on exam specifications, I always found something else, something extra. There was always an undiscovered poem, always something familiar to me but not so popular. And unlike TS Eliot, who I tried so hard to ‘enjoy’, Heaney’s poems are accessible and meaningful and also so enjoyable. As I said to Heaney in that bar in Stratford, Personal Helicon is my favourite. If ever a man could be inspirational… It amused him no end that I could recite it. I’m sure most poets don’t get mobbed by girl groupies who quote poetry at them. He was like the Justin Bieber of the poetry world to me. I bet nobody else says that as they eulogise him today.
But he was. For the first time in my life, I loved poetry. I loved what it could do with so few words. He made me want to write. On more than one occasion, his words brought something to me. I’m sure having to learn 20 of them by heart for my A levels has something to do with it, but it’s evidence of his influence that when I am digging potatoes, I cannot think of anything but Heaney. Likewise for any other kind of frog or bog occasion.
His poems always had a way to move me to tears. Bye-child and Mid-term Break are the ones that are so simple yet so evocative. I never could teach about monosyllabic power without referencing ‘a four foot box, a foot for every year’ about his brother’s coffin.
But he was a man who wrote about nature and countryside life too – in ways that recreate a place and time more powerful than most writers I know.
Anyway, I wrote this little poem yesterday. I don’t think he’d care that it is rushed and impatient. He had very smiley eyes.
Immense electricity; a magnificent salvo.
There are trees here, great giants,
Towering oaks and ancient willows.
Echoes of you; echoes of words
Borne in with a gale
raised in distant lands.
In the morning, the sight
Of broken limbs,
Boughs strewn thoughtlessly by
A reckless and irresponsible storm
Brings easy tears to my eyes.
Scapegoat trees. I wonder
At their punishment,
Weeping over their corpses
And the chainsaw death knell.
And who will mourn?
I see your words at work around me,
Ripples through space and time;
I find them within me
And clutch at them,
Feeling their rounded heaviness,
Comfortable as rosary beads.
Last night, I picked ripe blackberries from the hedgerows.
Even there, a foreign land, where foreign words
Invade my thoughts like cannibal yellowjackets,
I found your words, played them over in my mind:
Glossy purple clots.
How quickly they turn!
I yearn to hold on to that sweet growing season
When everything is ripe for the picking, and old willows