Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney, RIP

'Seamus Heaney is trending on Twitter'. Not a sentence anyone could have predicted, but yesterday morning, Twitter suddenly lit up with sadness and shock from Ireland and around the world, and today the world feels like a diminished place.

What accounts for such a reaction? Of course Seamus Heaney was read more widely than any other contemporary poet, and his work has become a staple of examination boards (a dismal fate he accepted with characteristic grace and good humour), but the genuine and universal outpouring of appreciation needs more explanation. Some of us were lucky enough to have met him (myself first over 35 years ago as a 15-year old fan, when he treated me as he did everyone, whatever their status - with attention, charm and graciousness), and everyone who did attested to his warmth. He was extraordinarily generous with his time (and somehow managed to balance this with a prolific writing career) and was always humble, kind, twinkle-eyed. It is very rare to meet someone about whom no-one has a bad word to say (even, yesterday, in the frequently virulent and hyperbolic online world). 

Many English teachers have expressed how Heaney meant so much more to them than being 'merely' an author they taught (see John Tomsett and Evelyn O'Connor, for instance), and whose poems made particularly personal connections, and those of us who have been teaching 'a while' have grown up with him as pupil, student and teacher. He became part of our intellectual DNA, in my case for decades.

In an interview with Robert McCrum, Heaney said about Ted Hughes that he "always felt safer for Ted's friendship somehow. He was foundational to me ... he transmitted a desire to be more yourself to yourself." Now that Heaney is gone, the words might refer to him too. So many people are reacting almost as if a parent had died, and this is right: Heaney has been there for so long, was so steady, so committed to his craft, so unwavering in what he did through the lunatic years of the Troubles and the Celtic Tiger, that we can all feel a little abandoned for a while. Belinda McKeon's emotional piece in the Paris Review captures this feeling well. And Fintan O'Toole writes today on the front page of the Irish Times: He turned our disgrace into grace, our petty hatreds into epic generosity, our dull clichés into questioning eloquence, the leaden metal of brutal inevitability into the gold of pure possibility. That is quite a loss.

Heaney's last poem in his last collection, Human Chain, was written for his granddaughter. The beautiful "A Kite for Aibhín" (which you can hear him reading here, near the end of a Guardian podcast) sees him back at at the beginning, at Anahorish on a hill, 'Air from another life and time and place'. They watch the kite as it 'hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew, / Lifts itself, goes with the wind until / It rises to loud cheers from us below' and then the string breaks and 'separate, elate - / The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.' It's as if he planned that as a final image; the strings have finally broken and as we now cheer his career he is 'separate, elate', himself alone.
A Kite for Aibhín
A Kite for Aibhín
A Kite for Aibhín

What he leaves behind is of course is what's photographed on this desk at the top of this post (and thankfully there are happy years ahead of rereading and rediscovery), and after yesterday's shock fades what will also be left is a sense of deep gratitude for this man's work and his life.


Below, a Storify of many of yesterday's reactions, including plenty of excellent links to material for teaching.


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