"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
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 different message, he told his truth plainly and never swerved from it. He deserved the many honours he received – including, I happen to know, 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 – rather, 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.
It’s blackberry season. For me, it’s been an overwhelming week of discoveries and change – yes, another one. Bells are ringing in my head which may reverberate through my life for years to come. So – 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 little 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.