The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde

A sunlit absence


Reader, I deal with poets a lot. Some radiate charisma, and that deep integrity that one is pleased to brush against once in a while – Galway Kinnell, Naomi Shihab Nye, Liz Lochhead, William Letford, Michael Donaghy. Some are great rollicking company with a glint in their eye – Martin Espada and our own poet laureate. Some are quietly, stubbornly true – Alison Brackenbury, Sharon Olds, Matt Merritt, David Morley.

Some are assholes, and I shall name them gladly for anyone who buys me a pint.

I name-drop to make a point. We are lucky to have had Seamus Heaney at all, and so sad to lose him. His work is quiet, strong and right. At a time when Northern Irish poetry was expected to deliver a partisan message, he told his truth plainly and never swerved from it. He deserved the many honours he received – including a national prize which he won and privately declined, saying that he had had enough honours and it should go to someone else. But more than that – he was nice.

I once had a short phone call from him about a request to use a poem of his in an education pack. ‘It’s Seamus Heaney here,‘ he said.  There was (as well there might be) a pause at my end. ‘Calling from Dublin,’ he added apologetically to jog my memory. I know, I know who you are, I thought. I wanted to call him Sir. I wanted to honour him. Everyone who had this kind of meet-and-greet contact with him has a story to tell; not because they want to hitch a ride on his fame, but because they were delighted by him. He was a giant who remembered how large the little people are – and perhaps, vice versa.

We all want to be remembered for our poetry. We want to touch people, we want them to give us the Nobel Prize. But mostly we will not be remembered for our poetry. We will be remembered if at all for how we lived, and how we did those things that poetry stands for; whether we had the courage to stand up when we should, and hold close to others who mattered.

Poetry stands for friendship and small pleasures; poetry stands for protest and social pressure. Poetry stands for love. Those whom we remember are the ones who said most clearly, that which we are trying every day to say. Ask Sappho. Ask Shakespeare. Ask Larkin. What will survive of us is love – and not, necessarily, our poetry. Let’s be kind; and vivid; and true, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

It’s blackberry season. For me, it’s been a week of discoveries and change. I will celebrate and honour Seamus Heaney tonight by sitting in my little canalside garden with my friend, poet Alan Buckley. We will eat blackberries, and talk, and read poetry, and drink wine in my boat. If I can write these moments, so much the better.

As for Seamus Heaney and what he was like? Well, read the poetry. He was like that.

10 comments on “A sunlit absence

  1. midlandcreative
    August 30, 2013

    This is a lovely piece, Jo. Thank you. Jonathan

  2. Angela France
    August 30, 2013

    Besautifully said, Jo. I wish I was sat in your garden with you to raise a glass (but I am working tomorrow so couln’t be there anyway.)

  3. Pingback: A week full of poetry | Kim Moore

  4. Alwyn Marriage
    August 30, 2013

    Lovely, Jo; and so true. Thank you.

  5. lizziejulie
    August 30, 2013

    Very touching, thank you. I’ll go gathering blackberries tomorrow and remember him 😉

  6. Julie Pritchard
    August 31, 2013

    I have only just discovered you. what you have written is beautiful. I was sad about Seamus Heaney i have loved his work for years. he had an honesty about him and wrote for the people.

  7. fiona lesley bennett
    September 1, 2013

    What a lovely tribute, ‘an ally to light’ Frank McGuiness has said and this lovely tribute of yours just added to the light.

  8. martinvosperwrites
    September 1, 2013

    A lovely tribute, Jo, and a timely reminder about what poetry (and life) is really about. Enjoy the blackberries. x

  9. Pingback: The blogs I read (4) | Anthony Wilson

  10. socialbridge
    May 17, 2014

    Great to have found you through Anthony Wilson and so thrilled to have found this post about Seamus Heaney who was so precious.

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This entry was posted on August 30, 2013 by in Writing exercises.
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