Seamus Heaney was the first famous poet I ever saw read, which was a serious stroke of luck, because the man’s careful, confident, mellow delivery (in that Northern Irish accent which some writers unfairly get to have) of his poems matched how great those texts are on the page. I was twenty, I bought Opened Ground (his first major Selected volume) that night, and I have creased the hell out of it ever since; there are few books I open more, and I imagine that goes for a lot of people.
Heaney’s best work is at once intensely, almost fanatically, taken by the grubby human round of love, heartbreak, death, and all that good personal stuff; rooted in a scholar’s grasp of other texts, whether we’re talking Greek bards, Modernist fiction, or Irish folklore; and tempered with a grown-up willingness to write contemporary history into one’s work without ignoring the personal. In terms of pure musical care and pleasure, his lyrics, which often obscure their structural rigor, are magnificent on a level that Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Auden, and maybe (maybe) a dozen other poets have attained. Heaney spent a half-century spitting fire, son.
He died yesterday at the age of 74. Over the next week or so the Anglophone world’s pop-highbrow outlets will publish tributes and assessments. Reading a couple will be enough. A few cheap contrarian blasts aside, these will correctly note that people will be reading the guy on Mars someday. But the encomiums will also be critically shallow (too many comparisons to Yeats, because DURR they were both Irish), politically tendentious (overemphasizing the admittedly great poems he wrote about The Troubles and ignoring texts set in California and elsewhere, or which aren’t geopolitically defined), and not especially interested in the words themselves so much as what cultural role he played as Famous Writer Who Taught At StanHarvardford.
The best way to send off a poet is to cite his poems. Since this probably shouldn’t be a 5-million-word post, I had to focus. It took a while to pick something, which ended up being “The Skunk,” from Field Work (1979), one of his best collections. Enjoy.
Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble
At a funeral Mass, the skunk’s tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.
The refrigerator whinnied into silence.
My desk light softened beyond the verandah.
Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.
I began to be tense as a voyeur.
After eleven years I was composing
Love-letters again, broaching the word ‘wife’
Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel
Had mutated into the night earth and air
Of California. The beautiful, useless
Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence.
The aftermath of a mouthful of wine
Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.
And there she was, the intent and glamorous,
Ordinary, mysterious skunk,
Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.
It call came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.