I was once lucky enough to see Seamus Heaney, who Robert Lowell once called “the most important Irish poet since Yeats,” give a poetry reading at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It was not long after his volume Field Work had been published.
The reading was held in an upper floor of the Assembly Rooms, looking on to a busy George Street. Heaney sat at a long table, which was slightly raised off the floor, its white linen cover planted with microphones. Through failing memory, I recall the actor J. G. Devlin, and either Niamh or Sorcha Cusack, flank the poet either side, their backs to the windows, silvered and yellowed with light. Heaney said he thought he was a poor reader of his own work, and that he preferred others to read his poetry, yet, when he did read, Heaney made the words tingle.
I thought Heaney looked like one of my father’s relatives. The eyebrows, the ruddy hue, the soft down of hair, the shared Irishness of my ancestors, farmers, and coopers, and supposedly tailors out of Dublin—the stories of my forebears change depending on the tale and the telling.
I listened as the three took turns to read “Death of a Naturalist,” “Blackberry Picking,” “Digging.”
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
There was no waste, every word used precisely, wisely, unfolding purpose, and meaning, and a shared sense of joy at what means to be alive. Outside, the Festival traffic moved on, oblivious. The memory fades, but Heaney’s poetry like all good literature maintains. Heaney died last August at the age of 74. His final message to the world, written in Latin moments before his death was: “Noli timere” (“Don’t be afraid.”) Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach, remarked on the poet’s passing “He is mourned — and deeply — wherever poetry and the world of the spirit are cherished and celebrated,” Mr Kenny said. “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people.”
This is Seamus Heaney interviewed by Melvyn Bragg for the South Bank Show in 1992. Forget the sub-titles, and listen to the beauty and wisdom of the words.
After the jump Seamus Heaney reads his “Digging”...