​Poet Seamus Heaney was a "figure of rare standing".

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate who died in late August at the age of 74, expressed his faith through a poetry whose gentle power could nurture and sustain the faith of others, Michael McGirr reflects.

So many people seem to have a story about Seamus Heaney. Mine is simple and, I gather, typical.

Some years ago I was working for a Christian magazine and, as anyone knows who has been in that line of work, this means being always short of cash. At one stage we organised an auction of books signed by their authors. Some writers of modest standing made a fuss about this. One or two of them wondered if we would attach an appropriate value to their precious signature. Heaney, on the other hand, sent an extremely valuable limited edition of his poetry along with a fax (remember those?) thanking us for the work we were doing and wishing us every blessing and happy faxing. Colm Toibin, an esteemed Irish writer who was in Australia at the time of Heaney’s death, knew the poet for forty years and says this sort of thing was characteristic of him. Heaney would often be out four nights a week supporting various causes.

The curious thing was that nobody ever tired of listening to Heaney as he tended not to rehash old stories. He was a poet in every fibre of his being, not a mouth for hire. The gentle depth of his speech was testimony to this; he spoke with a quiet energy and his authenticity had many layers. He could find the life in stones. Tobin told the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in August that in an Ireland that had lost faith in both religious and political leaders, Heaney was a figure of rare standing. He unearthed words where others buried themselves under clichés. The singer and activist, Bono, wrote at the time of Heaney’s death:

Every meeting I’ve ever had since I began full-time advocacy, I have brought with me a book of Seamus Heaney’s poems. I always think if you’re asking somebody for something it’s a good idea to give them something first. So I always gave them Seamus Heaney’s poems. This is from the pope to every president I have ever met… 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. Most of our life in this kind of work is very concrete, full of facts, but we all have to seek redress from time to time in poetry. Seamus was where I went for that. He was the quietest storm that ever blew into town… Some of those phrases are like tattoos for me, worn very close to the heart.
Bono was drawing attention to the ways in which Heaney’s poetry could feed those whose calling was to more explicit forms of action. Despite mourning the predicament of ‘two sides divided by the way they pray’, Heaney was sometimes criticised for not being sufficiently overt in his political affiliations, especially in the context of the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Commenting on the ceasefire announced by the Provisional IRA in 1994, he looked towards a ‘state of the soul’ in which peace might be seeded:

Hope, according to Havel, is different from optimism. It is a state of the soul rather than a response to the evidence. It is not the expectation that things will turn out successfully but the conviction that something is worth working for, however it turns out. Its deepest roots are in the transcendental, beyond the horizon. The self-evident truth of all this is surely something upon which a peace process might reasonably be grounded.
Heaney drew deeply on both English and Irish literary heritage. He was often at pains to defend the contemplative value of poetry. It is not necessarily a practical tool, more a whetstone of which the right kind of tools can be sharpened. In The Redress of Poetry, he wrote:

Poetry cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world. And while this may seem something of a truism, it is nevertheless worth repeating in a late-twentieth context of politically approved themes, post-colonial backlash and ‘silencebreaking’ writing of all kinds.

Seamus Heaney was born in a rural part of Northern Ireland in 1939, the eldest of nine children. Growing up close to the touch and smell of the earth shaped him in profound ways. His spirituality was close to the ground; it was also nourished by a rich engagement with Celtic mysticism and the Christian gospel. On being presented with the Nobel Prize in 1995, he spoke about his origins:

In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other.
As well as being a poet, Heaney was a teacher. He taught in prestigious universities such as Harvard and Cambridge but sometimes preferred to make reference to the time he spent working in an intermediate school in Belfast in the 1960s ‘in front of a class of deprived and disaffected adolescent boys, many of whom would end up a decade later as active members of the provisional IRA.’ Heaney relished the latent spirituality of his working class students: ‘the mystery of the thing interested them and every now and then during those English classes, something steadied and came into focus: for a concentrated moment the words they were attending to made sense and went home as only poetry can.’ It was the teacher in Heaney that was able, on many occasions, to explain the ways in which poetry touched the spirit:

Poetry is more a threshold than a path, one constantly approached and constantly departed from, at which reader and writer undergo in their different ways the experience of being at the same time summoned and released. (from The Government of the Tongue)

We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves. The best it can do is to give us an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering. (from Joy or Night)
Few writers knew both Heaney and his work as profoundly as the great Australian poet, Peter Steele. Steele’s essay ‘Seamus Heaney: celebration and its enemies’ (found in Braiding the Voices) is a terrific exploration of the ways shadows move within the light Heaney casts. Steele admires Heaney’s understanding that ‘art’s coherings are always lodged in history’s incoherences’. For Steele, Heaney’s work is sustained by a rich sense of celebration. ‘One of Heaney’s prime inclinations is to offer a bread, at once world and word, which is best taken with the wine of celebration – a wine which seems to come from water itself when water is well regarded.’ He continues: ‘Celebration, I take it, is an act of solidarity; the dancers in its ring face outwards.’

Rather than blather on about Heaney and the power of his gentleness, let me share two poems, both from his final collection, Human Chain, a book which ponders illness, frailty and the complex business of growing old. One poem is a meditation on the story in Mark’s Gospel about the friends who helped the paralysed man to reach Jesus by letting him down through the roof of a building:

Not the one who takes up his
bed and walks
But the ones who have known
him all along
And carry him in –
Their shoulders numb,
the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher
Slippery with sweat.
And no let-up
Until he’s strapped on tight,
made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof,
then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they
stand and wait
For the burn of the paid-out
ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadedness
and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had
known him all along.
A section of another poem, Album, recalls Heaney’s father, a significant figure in a lot of his work, and thinks about three occasions on which Heaney had the chance to embrace his father:

Were I to have
embraced him anywhere
It would have been on the
Th at summer before college,
him in his prime,
Me at the time not thinking
how he must
Keep coming with me because
I’d soon be leaving.
That should have been the first,
but it didn’t happen.
The second did,
at New Ferry one night
When he was very drunk
and needed help
To do up trouser buttons.
And the third
Was on the landing during his
last week,
Helping him to the bathroom,
my right arm
Taking the webby weight
of his underarm.
You’d have to be made of stone to be unmoved by the simple grandeur of Heaney’s work. He was one of that small number of craftsmen who could work with the most basic stone and timber of life to create images of flesh and blood. Heaney’s last words were written, not spoken. As he died, he wrote in Latin for his wife, Marie, the words ‘don’t be afraid.’ Heaney was one of those whose hard-won honesty left the world a less fearful place.

Michael McGirr is the Dean of Faith and Mission at St Kevin’s College, Melbourne.