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Seamus Heaney (1939-2013): 'If You Have the Words, There's Always a Chance That You'll Find the Way.'

09/02/2013 09:32 am ET | Updated Nov 02, 2013

I owe a great debt to Seamus Heaney.

I finished my novel. Or so I thought. My agent agreed. Almost. There was one thing missing. A small thing. I could do it efficiently and quickly. I did.

Or rather, I wrote my agent to say I did. I was reading the book one more time, I said. You'll have it tomorrow.

I stayed up late. I wrote and wrote. Not a word of it solved the problem.

In the morning, I read that Seamus Heaney had died. Very sad news: He was young, just 74. And, it is generally agreed, the most accomplished poet writing in English. Newspapers and online sites reprinted some of his poems. I read them --- and Seamus Heaney, from the grave, solved my problem.

The thing I needed to fix: Something's gone wrong in David's marriage, and his wife has moved out. His law partner assures him that Blair will return; if he's smart, he won't ask her about the weeks she's been gone. Easy to say, hard to do. Then he remembers a Seamus Heaney poem.

This is how that chapter of my book ends:

The title of the poem is "The Underground." That's the London subway, of course. It's also a reference to the Orpheus myth. A snake bites his wife, and she dies; broken by grief, Orpheus goes to the Underworld to rescue her. Hard-hearted Hades hears his music and tells him: You can have her, but if you look back before you're in the upper world, you will lose her forever. Just before they reach safety, Orpheus can't resist -- he looks back.

In Heaney's poem, he and his wife are in London on their honeymoon. They're in the subway, late for a concert. She's running ahead of him, buttons popping off her coat, and he follows, like Hansel in the fairy tale, collecting the buttons.

This is how the poem ends:

Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

When Heaney taught at Harvard, his wife stayed in Ireland, raising their children. He flew home every six weeks. A smart man, a good husband -- no scandal is attached to his name.

Seamus and Marie Heaney were married for 48 years.

Damned if I'll look back.

So there I was, a dot in Heaney's vast shadow. And grateful for it -- with his prod, those words typed themselves.

But then, in poem after poem, Heaney's words seem... inevitable. He had the Irish gift -- the gift of bullshit -- but unlike, say, Bono, he didn't use words for self-glorification. As someone said, he saw the Nobel Prize (among friends, he spoke of "the N-word") as encouragement to do better.

Heaney was that rare event: a great writer, a great man. He taught. He mentored. He praised. He parented. And still did the internal work that led to a book of selected poems that topped 400 pages. "Seamus never had a sour moment, neither in person nor on paper," said the playwright Tom Stoppard. "You couldn't help loving him any more than you could help reading on from the first line."

The life, in brief: Born in Northern Ireland, in 1939, the eldest of nine children. (A younger brother, age four, was killed by a car. His poem about the death ends: "Wearing a poppy bruise on the left temple/ He lay in the four foot box as in a cot./ No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear./ A four foot box, a foot for every year.") He won a scholarship to a school that nourished him, earned a college degree in English, taught, married, wrote. In college, he said of his writing, "I was just kicking the ball around the penalty area, not trying to shoot at the goal. Then in 1962 the current began to flow."

The Heaney poems you may have seen quoted mostly describe a world as foreign to us as the moon, a rural world of lorries, peat, wells, animals and the heavy tread of the Church. As he describes it in his Nobel Prize speech:

...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. We took in everything that was going on...

But don't make the mistake of thinking Heaney is as accessible as Robert Frost. Many poems, especially the later ones, read like stories or letters, but for the earlier ones, it would help if you have a command of myth and poetry. The through line: language. His delight in being at college is "exhilarated self-regard." About writing: "Cultivate a work-lust/ that imagines its haven like your hands at night/ dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast." A poem, he write, is "a ploughshare that turns time/ Up and over" -- like cutting peat. Because there's always a connection between where he's from and where he is now. As in "Digging," one of his most frequently quoted poems:

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.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

"If you have the words," he said, "there's always a chance that you'll find the way."

Did he ever.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]