I'm in Wilmington Delaware, in a suburban hotel, for a family funeral. The dead aunt-in-law was 97, the wife of my father-in-law's youngest brother, and the loving mother of five children, one of whom died in his early adulthood: today she'll be buried beside him. But because I don't know this part of the family well, my thoughts keep turning to Seamus Heaney, and I know today a part of my mourning at the graveside will be for him.
I can't even describe what his poetry meant to me: it often moved me deeply, and has given me unforgettable images, but his work is also one of very few high-water marks of English language usage written in my own lifetime: he is, for me, the contemporary Shakespeare, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot with whom I feel an immediate and personal connection. His love for the Greek classics as well as the great Anglo Saxon myths was a comfort and reassurance that my own inclinations weren't completely outmoded. It's his words that speak to me when I am in the British Museum looking at the Celtic and Roman Britain galleries; even though much of my family history took place on a different continent, this is my history too...
And at the same time he spoke and wrote of personal life, of nature and relationship to the land, of doing things with one's own hands, in a way that I understood: he was an integrator of all of this, not an academic or intellectual snob. And the English of his poems themselves was a living thing, breathing and musical, meant to be spoken aloud.
So I am very sad at the finiteness of this death -- too young -- and also very grateful for all the poems he left us. In my imagination he appears not in suit and tie, as we often see him in photographs, but in a work jacket and boots, standing somewhere in Ireland, a chunk of peat in his hands.
I wrote about Eliot and Heaney back in 2007 in a three-part essay titled "Wastelands and Bog People." In that essay I quoted Blake Morrison:
"One does not have to look very deeply into Heaney's work ... to see that it is rather less comforting and comfortable than has been supposed. Far from being 'whole,' it is tense, torn, divided against itself; far from being straightforward, it is layered with often obscure allusions; far from being archaic, it registers the tremors and turmoils of its age, forcing traditional forms to accept the challenge of harsh, intractable material.... A proper response to Heaney's work requires reference to complex matters of ancestry, nationality, religion, history, and politics."
But the last word about the lifelong process we are talking about s is Heaney's himself:
"Perhaps the final thing to be learned is this: in the realm of poetry, as in the realm of consciousness, there is no end to the possible learnings that can take place. Nothing is final, the most gratifying discovery is fleeting, the path of positive achievement leads directly to the via negativa.