Last year was my first trip to the AWP Conference. Seamus Heaney, along with Derek Walcott, gave the keynote address. The night their talk was scheduled, I had dinner in Cambridge with friends. As it got closer to the time I’d have to leave in order to make it back to Boston, I kept looking at the snow piling outside and lamenting my already-permanently-frozen-and-soaked feet. I was warm inside, eating Indian food with some of my dearest friends, which was pretty ideal.
“You should go,” one of my friends recommended. “Heaney has a fantastic voice.”
Deciding to go, perhaps out of obligation, I texted a friend, asking him to come to the keynote with me. I walked back to the Harvard T stop and headed toward the convention center.
Later, warm again and curled up in my balcony seat, I listened to Seamus Heaney’s fantastic voice. He was brilliant. I wrote down as much of what he said as I could.
I remember his spirit as generous and gentle. He was humble and confident. His words were wise and carefully chosen. He made us laugh. It felt as if I was simply in a room with another poet, another writer trying to do the same work I am.
Robert Pinsky remembered Heaney with a column in Slate. He wrote, “I’ve often thought to myself, Thank god for Chekhov, who demonstrated that a great writer could be generous, large-hearted, unselfish, tolerant. The same goes for Seamus Heaney: His understanding of other people, individually and in groups and in nations, made him a master of occasions and a supreme teller of jokes and stories. The same quality makes him a great poet. Thank god for him, too.”
Heaney read us “Postscript” at the end of his talk, which I’ve copied here:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
From THE SPIRIT LEVEL (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996)
It didn’t feel entirely fair to end with that poem, mostly because the lights were going up as I was drying tears. Because, of course, that poem enacted what its last line claims is possible.
Heaney wrote poems that reassure me of poetry’s power to be all that I hope it can be. It can record the small moments that bring us as close to the spirit of another as we will ever get. It can shoulder burdens, bring us closer to ourselves. It can “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
To have heard Seamus Heaney read was simply a gift. Perhaps I needed something on that snowy Boston night that I wouldn’t know I needed until now. What I do know is that we are better for having Heaney’s words in the world.
Surely a lot of us have read Heaney’s poem “Digging.” It ends like this:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
The best poets (and poems), I’ve found, are the ones that make me feel like I can’t go another minute without a pencil in my hand. Let’s do this good work, poets.