When news of the death of Irish poet Seamus Heaney reached me, I went to the bookshelf and took down a 1969 Faber and Faber hardcover, Heaney’s second book, Door Into The Dark, and started to read, revisiting the familiar poems.
While I can’t remember when I first read one of his poems—”the years shuttle through space invisibly” and, at least for me, imperiously—but it must have been near to when I first began to read poetry in the late 1980s. Then, sometime in the 1990s, I heard Heaney read in Minneapolis, at Orchestra Hall. Given the venue and the crowds attending, the reading must have taken place not long after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, which was in 1995.
I felt akin to the his early poems, the words in the poems like rocks rolled into place, but when he built above that, adding the upper story of Irish politics and culture, I felt the Atlantic Ocean intervene and felt all that terror at a distance, however vividly described.
So, after my initial, intense attention to the early books, I didn’t follow Heaney as closely as I might have. Nevertheless each new book caught my attention at some point, whether remaindered on a table in a used bookstore or shelved against oblivion in a college library. Sometimes I’d go back to those first books, Death of a Naturalist or North, and indulge. Sometimes, I’d sample an essay or two, from Governing the Tongue or Redress of Poetry. More recently I’ve enjoyed his translations of the Old English Beowulf and the medieval Scots poet Robert Henryson. Heaney brought to both the same sack-of-potatoes diction, the same turf-cutting syntax, that made his own poems resound so low to the ground and honestly.
Each day has it’s own doorway into the dark. Seamus Heaney was kind enough, poet enough, to remind us that the passage need not be one way. True, that dark is inside, an impenetrable core, like imagining the center of a stone, but as long as we, the living, can go both ways through that door, the light will make “The sea a censer, and the grass a flame.” That our eyes, after they’ve adjusted to the dark inside the church, inside the Oratorium, inside the stone chambers of our grief, should be almost blinded by the intensity of the daylit world. This no doubt holds for the other senses as well. So that our ears, for instance, after taking in too much routine noise—blenders, lawnmowers, blaring cars—can be restored by the subtlety and surprise of our language put down in poems, something Heaney did so well, and something for which he’ll be long remembered. Think of the whinlands, that treeless and boggy landscape that is brightened and brought to life by Heaney’s choice of words “gilt, jaggy, springy, frilled…”