A Door Into the Dark: When I Heard Seamus Heaney Had Died…

In the early morning hours of Friday, August 30, 2013, I read the news that Seamus Heaney had died.  I was sipping coffee and nearly dropped my cup as I choked in astonished grief.  A legend is no longer with us.

I have met Seamus Heaney.  He was a good man, an unpretentious and fine poet, and a shaper of words.

I’ll never forget when I attended his poetry reading years ago in Marin, CA.  After he read to a rapt audience, I stood in the long queue awaiting him to sign copies of his books.  When I finally stood in front of him, I was nervous as I mentioned that I taught his poems in my college classes.  He asked me which other poets I taught.  I told him, “Wordsworth, Keats, Hopkins, Frost, and Hughes.”  He tilted his head to the ceiling, pondered indiscriminate space, and said to me, “Well, at least there’s some continuity then.”  I smiled and felt blessed, like the Pope himself had approved my Sunday catechism.

One of the most cherished moments in my life was when I had the opportunity to attend the Notre Dame Irish Seminar in Dublin, Ireland. The seminar director, Kevin Whelan, also had a passion for all things related to Seamus Heaney.  We had many wonderful conversations about his poetry.

The highlight of the seminar was a tour to Bellaghy, Northern Ireland to visit the small farming town where Seamus spent his childhood.  We visited the Seamus Heaney Museum and then Devlin’s smithy shop, which Seamus made famous in his sonnet “The Forge.”  Indeed, the smithy is a dark, ominous place, forbidding and mysterious, and a heavy anvil stands on a dirt floor with hammers and tongs hanging on a nearby wall.  I grabbed a hammer and struck the anvil.

It was one of my fondest memories of Ireland.  I went and witnessed Seamus’s famous anvil.

On my right forearm, I have a tattoo of the anvil that Seamus mentions in the sonnet.  I took a picture of the two anvils together and mailed Seamus a copy of the snapshot.  In return, he sent me a kind letter and signed copies of his books.

In the backyard of Seamus’s childhood home in Bellaghy a water pump stands adjacent to a clothes line.  That pump was the ‘omphalos’ that he wrote about in so many of his early poems.  With gladness I cranked the handle and for a few moments joined with the spiritual center of Northern Irish farm life and the sublime influence of poetry.

I loved Seamus Heaney.  I own multiple copies of all his books.  I carry his poems with me and share his words with almost everyone I meet, especially my students.  His words are daily hymns to me, and along with the poetry of William Butler Yeats, they embody a steadfast canon of psalms and gospels…

Of course, we all have our stories and memories and I could go on.  Seamus Heaney was a gracious man and a splendid ambassador of Irish poetry and culture.  He was a poet loved by people all over the world.  He will be sorely missed.

Seamus wouldn’t want us to be in grief for his sudden and too early departure.  He’d console us with gentle words as soft as the vowels of “Anahorish.”  He’d pat us on the back and say that he was sorry for our troubles.  Then he’d recommend that we take up a “squat pen” and dig with it.  Let’s remember Seamus for the mighty wordsmith he was…

Seamus Heaney Obituary in The Guardian

A life in pictures

Seamus’s Study

Seamus Reads his poems

Three Rilke Inspired Poems

A poem about change

A poem for Ted Hughes

A Retrospect (poem)

A review of Heaney’s ‘Opened Ground’

Travels with Seamus …

A Seamus Heaney Interview

TLS remembers Seamus …

Seamus Heaney’s poem “Lint Water

Article on Seamus Heaney’s Funeral in the Irish Times…

Seamus Heaney Remembered in The Guardian

The RTE remembers Seamus Heaney

Making Sense of a Life

Coverage of Heaney’s funeral


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