When I heard that Irish poet Seamus Heaney had passed away, I immediately thought of the one time that I had met him. It was in 1994 in Dublin, a year before he received the Nobel Prize for literature, and I was in a café for a poetry reading. I had read a couple of poems – ones I did not feel were particularly good – and I was leaning against a wall listening to other poets read their work. A man sitting in a booth next to me looked up at me with sparkling eyes, shook my hand, and said with a deep and commanding whisper, “Keep at it. You have a lilt to your words.”
I thanked the white-haired gentleman but remained silent after that, not wanting to talk as someone else was at the podium reading. I guess I also felt a little uncomfortable with any kind of praise for my writing; I don’t think I have ever been able to get used to it.
Later on my friend Brendan walked over to me and asked, “What did he have to say to you?”
“Who?” Then I remembered the older gent. “Oh, that fellow in the booth?”
Brendan squeezed my arm. “That fellow is Seamus Heaney.”
I looked back at the booth where the poet had been sitting, but he was gone. Such was my brief encounter with the famous poet, but it struck me not how generous and kind he had been to me, but rather how real his words were, how human.
I think that when we meet celebrities of any kind, we expect something otherworldly; however, my experiences have been just the opposite. Over the years I have met actors like Al Pacino, Bob Fosse, Margaret Hamilton, and Kathy Bates, and they all came across as real people who were friendly and unassuming. I also have met famous writers, among them Galway Kinnell, Lorian Hemingway, Robert Olen Butler, and Mr. Heaney, and I have had a similar experience. They aren’t towering Olympians but regular folks who happen to be blessed with extraordinary talent.
One of the things that made Heaney’s work so lasting and memorable was that it connected humanity to something intangible, yet however spiritual, it reminded us of earthly realities in the process. Consider the words of the man regarding his role as poet in a 1991 interview with The Economist. “The poet is on the side of undeceiving the world,” he said. “It means being vigilant in the public realm. But you can go further still and say that poetry tries to help you to be a truer, purer, wholer being.”
This is akin to Pablo Picasso’s saying that “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” Heaney knew that he had a responsibility, not just to Ireland but to the world, yet he was the most Irish of poets. His inspiration came from William Butler Yeats and James Joyce – two of the most Irish of writers – yet Heaney was probably more Irish than they, closer to the earth and the sky and the “Troubles” of that Emerald Isle. This is how he became famous, perhaps the most widely known and read poet of all time.
While being a political voice and identifying himself as a Catholic by leaving his native Northern Ireland to live in Dublin, he was also not totally anti-England. Especially admiring of English writers, Heaney understood their enormous contribution to literature. But he was also avowedly Irish as evident in these words he wrote: “Be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen.”
I remember first reading Heaney’s work in my English classes at Queens College here in New York City. Knowing that his father was a farmer and that he had grown up in the culture of tilling the soil, it seemed only natural that his poems were crafted of and for the earth, owing much to that Irish land he loved, but instead of a plow he used his pen as he describes in this poem “Digging” :
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.