The Common Good

The Unsilenced Voice of Seamus Heaney

One of my favorite stories is about the interview I wanted most, but didn’t get.

Irish poet Seamus Heaney By Sean O'Connor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Irish poet Seamus Heaney By Sean O'Connor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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It was 2005 and I had just signed a contract to write what would be my first book — a collection of profiles of mostly well-known people about their spiritual lives. Artists. Writers. Thinkers. Scientists. The odd rock star.

Sitting in my publisher’s office, she asked me to dream out loud: If I could interview anyone for the project, who was No. 1 on my wish list?

I answered without hesitation: Seamus Heaney.

To say that I was a fan of the Irish poet and Nobel laureate is an understatement of epic proportions. My love of Heaney’s words runs deep, like a vena cava that ferries lifeblood to my soul’s imagination.

My husband and I literally (and literarily) fell in love by reading Heaney’s poetry aloud to one another.

A verse from his “Station Island,” the one that ends, “And my heart flushed, like somebody set free,” graced our wedding invitation.

Heaney’s poetry is earthy and true, whether he’s describing a bog, a body or something far more ethereal.

His poetry was without piety but never profane. While his words elevate hearts and minds, his feet ever were planted in the peat and sod of his beloved Ireland.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, Heaney and I shared a publishing house, so I was able to reach out to him directly. I wrote a breathless, achingly earnest letter requesting an interview. Anywhere. Any time. I’ll hop on a plane at a moment’s notice …

A few days later, Heaney responded via a two-page fax from Dublin. He began by thanking me and then apologized.

I’m sorry, he said with a gentleness that managed to waft from even the faxed page. Spirituality was the one part of his life about which he felt he was “woefully inarticulate,” is how he put it, if I recall correctly.

My dream was dead. Or was it?

His dispatch declining an interview had a second page. There I found the most extraordinarily generous and gracious of consolation prizes: a poem.

Here, Heaney said. Perhaps you can use it in some small fashion in your book. He titled it, “A Found Poem.”

In its few words, Heaney told me a lifetime about his spirituality and beliefs, history, and hopes. But it was the act of his offering me the precious poem that said even more about the size of his heart and the condition of his soul.

I wept for hours when I learned of Heaney’s death on Aug. 30 after a brief illness at a hospital in Dublin. I never knew him personally, but the man had given me so much – and not just in that one act of profound kindness to a novice writer he’d never met.

Irish television aired his funeral live, and it felt as if all of Ireland stood still to honor their beloved countryman. (Could you imagine the same happening here to honor a poet? Do you even know who our current poet laureate is?)

Heaney was the son of a farmer from Derry who, despite intergalactic success as a literary star, remained, by all accounts, a humble, big-hearted, regular fellow.

A few of his fellow Irishmen captured some of what we are feeling in his absence.

“Seamus has been with me on every journey I have taken, and there have been many times when a retreat into his words has kept me afloat,” U2′s Bono wrote in a tribute the day after Heaney’s death. “Some of those phrases are like tattoos for me, worn very close to the heart.”

Heaney’s disappearance — so unexpected and jolting — left a silence and a stilled a pen. There would be no more new words.

And yet the poetic embrace he’s left as a legacy is vast enough to hold those of us who drew life from his work and many generations to come.

“It was Seamus Heaney’s unparalleled capacity to sweep all of us up in his arms that we’re honoring today,” the poet Paul Muldoon said during his eulogy for his dear friend. “We remember the beauty of Seamus Heaney — as a bard, and in his being.”

According to Heaney’s son, Michael, his father’s last words — sent via text message from his hospital bed to his wife of nearly 50 years, Marie, minutes before he died — said, in part, “nolle timere” (Latin for “don’t be afraid”).

Perhaps he wanted to reassure her that they would be reunited. Perhaps at the festival of friends on the other side, where there is a forever of found poems and eternal embraces.

 

A FOUND POEM

Like everybody else, I bowed my head

during the consecration of the bread and wine,

lifted my eyes to the raised host and raised chalice,

believed (whatever it means) that a change occurred.

 

I went to the alter rails and received the mystery

on my tongue, returned to my place, shut my eyes fast, made

an act of thanksgiving, opened my eyes and felt

time starting up again.

 

There was never a scene

when I had it out with myself or with an other.

The loss of faith occurred off stage. Yet I cannot

disrespect words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘host’

or even ‘communion wafer.’ They have an undying

pallor and draw, like well water far down.

– Seamus Heaney (2005)

Cathleen Falsani is the faith & values columnist for The Orange County Register. Via Religion News Service.

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