Charles Causley Trust Trustee Ronald Tamplin remembers Seamus Heaney …
In January 1939 the Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner WB Yeats died. In a memorial poem WH Auden wrote:
Earth receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
In April of the same year Seamus Heaney was born. He too would fill that Irish vessel with magnificent, world-acclaimed poetry and be honoured with the Nobel Prize. He died last Friday, August 30th 2013, aged 74.
In the last couple of days I have been listening to the Irish radio and a tremendous outpouring of grief and, within that, huge gratitude for the poetry, the man and his life. And it was a chance again to listen to his voice, the gentle Derry accent, reading his poems, describing their occasions and through that filling out the course of a life of dedication and endeavour. It was a warm presence more than a recorded voice. On British wavelengths too this feeling came across.
What was being remembered? Well, first, the achievement of the poems; in all, twelve collections from Death of a Naturalist in1966 to Human Chain in 2010. Add to that, versions of plays from the Greek and major translations of long poems, Buile Suibhne, from Middle Irish, published as Sweeney Astray (1984) and Beowulf (1999) from Old English and dedicated to the memory of Ted Hughes. Interestingly in this context, in the celebratory volume Poems for Charles Causley, edited by Michael Hanke in 1982, there’s a King Sweeney poem, ‘Sweeney’s Praise of Farranan’ and in Causley at 70, edited by Harry Chambers in 1987, a version of lines from Beowulf, ‘The Scop’, both of them gifts from Heaney. This is the right place to say further that Seamus was a good and generous supporter of the Trust’s endeavours to preserve Charles Causley’s house as a memorial to Charles and a help to writers to come and so to fulfil Charles’ wishes. There were, of course, substantial links of friendship and recognition between Heaney, Causley, Hughes, and Larkin as a major quartet of poets dominating poetry in these islands in the second half of the 20th century.
And after that, an exemplary man was being remembered. The warm memories, from all sides, of someone who would go out of his way to help, talk to anybody and do whatever seemed to be needed filled the Irish airways from Friday and throughout the weekend. The word ‘humble’ was pretty often there – not one that’s heard so much these days, nor often recommended to us. But in Seamus Heaney it was ingrained and natural. At his funeral, poet and close friend, Paul Muldoon delivered the tribute. He had flown in from America where he teaches at university. Asked at the border what he taught he said ‘poetry’. ‘You must be devastated’, said the man at the desk. And later in his tribute Muldoon remembered Heaney being fitted with a pacemaker a few years back and saying ‘Blessed are the pacemakers’. I knew him a little and almost entirely through the poems and his illuminating critical writings, but there was one time when I read on the same bill as him – it was one of those readings when there were more poets than the stage could bear. He was top of the bill. It was still going on after midnight and I was standing next to him, He said to me – and this was the modesty of the man – ‘It’s so late for them, I think I’ll just read one or two’. I said, ‘But they’re here to hear you. That’s why they’re still here’ – and fortunately he read what he had intended to in the beginning. He was a man with a smile and a joke who enjoyed company. Yet Colm Tóibín recalls his sense of someone who, when the reading, the signing, the company and the rest were all over, was somehow freed – a private, intimate, familial person. This, I think chimes well with the role of poetry itself which is to project the most interior and hard-wrestled thought in public, making what is deep inside explicit and available, an act of balance. It’s an odd relationship and echoed too by the way Heaney related to the subjects of his translations. Heaney’s approach to the 7th century Irish King Sweeney is revealing. ‘I was sure I knew him. The time I’d spent obsessively in that upstairs room bringing myself close to him: each entranced hiatus as I chain-smoked and stared out of the dormer into the grassy hillside I was laying myself open. He was depending on me as I hung out on the limb of a translated phrase…’ And this has implications for Heaney’s poems altogether not only those formally called translations. As the poet Paul Valery remarked, ‘All poetry is translation’.
And after that again, came the memories intermingled with the poems, as people recalled them, their favourite ones, the chords they struck. And here any response is very personal. From the body of the work these would be some of mine, although it’s an impossible choice. An early miracle of a poem, ‘Bogland’ in Door into the Dark (1969) in which Heaney presents the peat bog as a primal Irish mythic presence, preserving skeletal remains, and therefore the land’s history and its people: ‘The ground itself is kind, black butter /Melting and opening underfoot, / Missing its last definition / By millions of years /… The wet centre is bottomless’. And the title of that book too, Door into the Dark where the apparently negative ‘dark’ is shown as revelatory. Another moment for me is in the poem ‘Wintering Out’, written in the midst of the Troubles:
Is there life before death?
That’s chalked up on a wall downtown.
Competence with pain, coherent miseries, a bite and a sup,
we hug our little destiny again.
And following on from that the whole of the book North (1975) which immensely expands the implications of those two quotations. And in Station Island (1984 ) where Heaney vividly and succinctly reworks the pilgrimage structure that Chaucer and Langland used. He meets, among others, the 19th century Irish writer William Carleton who in many ways first brought into play the rural community, so much associated with Heaney, as a crucial element in Irish writing. They discuss their lives and times, the joy and the grief and Heaney gives these words to Carleton:
‘I know, I know, I know, I know,’ he said,
but you have to try to make sense of what comes’.
These are epitomes of some of the larger themes that, for me, the poems and so Heaney’s life exemplify. But I have left to last the people that fill the poems and what above all they direct us to, there in the everyday
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the mealbin.
On this funeral day, to Marie, Christopher, Michael, Catherine Ann and the grandchildren, ‘Sorry for your trouble’.