Today marks the second anniversary of the death of Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
Seamus Heaney’s poetry, as regular readers will know, has been very dear to my heart, especially since I heard him read at the Kikenny Arts Festival in August 2009, just weeks after my mother’s death and at a time when my father was very frail indeed.
Heaney’s work is wide-ranging in terms of theme but, for me, his writings about his family, particularly his late parents, resonate very strongly and never fail to bring solace.
Last night, I was perusing the various volumes of his work that have their home on my desk beside the computer and found myself returning over and over to what I suspect may be his shortest poem of all.
The dotted line my father’s ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won’t wash away.
(Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, Faber and Faber)
The tide has ebbed and flowed rhythmically over the last two years and it certainly hasn’t washed away any of the lines crafted by Seamus Heaney. If anything, it has brought more and more of them up onto the shores of new waves of poetry lovers from all across the world.
The Kilkenny Arts Festival is a major highlight in my year and my first thought is always about the poets who will be reading there.
As I opened the Programme for this year, I thought of the wondrous evening in 2009 when I sat spellbound, just weeks after my mother’s death, listening to Seamus Heaney read as if I was the only person in St. Canice’s Cathedral. Nothing will ever take away that precious memory.
I pondered on just what poet could take my breath away even half as much as Seamus Heaney and doubted that anyone could.
However, I felt a frantic beating of my heart when I saw that Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the US (2001-2003), will be reading at this year’s Festival. To tell the truth, I did about ten double-takes and re-checks just to be sure to be sure that it is THEBilly Collins whom I’ve come to love with a grand passion since being well introduced to him on my poetry thread on Linkedin.
While I don’t want to wish the Summer away, I can’t wait for August 16th at the Parade Tower of Kilkenny Castle. What I would give to have a chance to talk with this man who has written so many poems that I adore. I can feel Seamus Heaney smiling as I write this. Well, you might, Seamus; but no matter what you’ll always be my number one!
Walking Across the Atlantic
I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach
before stepping onto the first wave.
Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
thinking about Spain,
checking for whales, waterspouts.
I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.
Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.
But for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.
Seamus Heaney and his poetry have been weaving in and out of my life for over 25 years now. I remember celebrating wildly with my mother in 1995 when news came through that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It seemed so right that he was star poet reading at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2009, just a few short weeks after Mother had died. Kilkenny was the place where my parents first met in the early 1940s and I felt their happy youthful presence all round me as I made my way to St. Canice’s Cathedral for the performance.
Nothing could ever have prepared me for the impact which Seamus Heaney and his poetry had on me that balmy August evening. It was as if he knew that Mother had just died and was trying to comfort me by telling me that I was not alone in my sadness. The emotion with which he read about his own mother penetrated my sorrow and his words were like empathetic arms around me:
From Clearances 3
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
When all the others were away at Mass I was all hers as we peeled potatoes. They broke the silence, let fall one by one Like solder weeping off the soldering iron: Cold comforts set between us, things to share Gleaming in a bucket of clean water. And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying And some were responding and some crying I remembered her head bent towards my head, Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives– Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
Last week, I spent a few days in Co. Clare which was my father’s native county. He had been thrilled to hear about my expedition to Kilkenny in August 2009 and he talked of how complicated and time-consuming it had been back in the 1940s to get from Kilkenny to Kilrush, especially when one was the junior in the bank. One of my reasons for visiting Co. Clare last week was to go and see some of the ‘special’ places that Father told me about before his death in September 2010. I was also inspired by Seamus Heaney to take the time to visit Flaggy Shore in the Burren Region, just a few miles from Ballyvaughan.
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)
The swans were just as he described and more than anything I knew that Seamus Heaney would fully understand when I felt, yet again, my heart being caught off guard and blown open.