Seamus Heaney: 1939 – 2013

Sad news: The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died at age 74. 

When I was a freshman in college in the early 1990s, I was fortunate enough to take an upper-level English class with Dr. Ed Duffy, who dedicated a few months of the semester just to Heaney’s work. It was a remarkable immersion, and I felt incredibly engaged and grown-up. 

We serially read Heaney’s Station Island, a quest for both the book’s narrator and the course’s students. And at some point we landed on perhaps Heaney’s most well-known poem, “Digging,” which ends this way:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

That occupational charge — This is my purpose — was powerful for this future English major, as I suspect it’s been for many others. 

Since then I’ve kept up with Heaney, reading profiles of him, lectures from him, and adding a few of his books to my shelves. Unfortunately, it seems the slim Station Island paperback is no longer with me, though a few fatter collections are.

As I paged back through these this morning, more than a few striking lines still earn the squiggles and exclamation marks with which I marked them the first time through: “the black glacier / of each funeral / pushed away” (“Funeral Rites”); “Love, I shall perfect for you the child / Who diligently potters in my brain” (“Poem”); “The future was a verb in hibernation” (“Villanelle for an Anniversary”); “the whispering grass / Ran its fingers through our guessing silence” (“A Dream of Jealousy”).

To close, I’ll quote from a few longer passages I’d marked, still so vividly earthy and right. From “Death of a Naturalist”:

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. 

And the last lines from “Personal Helicon”:

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime, 
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing. 

Stephen Schenkenberg @schenkenberg