I think of Heaney as an ethical poet, because he was very much alert to the transformational properties of poetry to console, educate, and improve. He believed writing could change things, as in the episode from the New Testament where Jesus writes in the sand and diverts a crowd from stoning a woman who has been caught committing adultery. It’s Jesus’s writing on the ground with his finger that diverts the angry mob, and, as Heaney said, “It takes the eyes away from the obsession of the moment.” Poetry, he believed, could achieve this, too.
When considering the lives of writers, an unpleasant truth emerges: Many of them, including some great ones, were mean or petty or worse. I’ve often thought to myself, Thank god for Chekhov, who demonstrated that a great writer could be generous, large-hearted, unselfish, tolerant. The same goes for Seamus Heaney: His understanding of other people, individually and in groups and in nations, made him a master of occasions and a supreme teller of jokes and stories. The same quality makes him a great poet. Thank god for him, too.
Heaney was a master of picking the right words, of finding, for instance, the sound of a taste, the syllable of a smell, the vowel for what a thing does (a piece of straw stuck into a spinning upturned bicycle wheel "frittered," for instance). But he also understood, warily, that words tend to want to point to one truth at a time: toward yes or no, right or wrong. He struggled in his poems to find ways of making words take more than one side at once, while he stood at the crossroads of one of history's bitterest ongoing territorial and ideological conflicts.
He remained true to the concept of neighbourliness transcending sectarian imperatives, to the forked hazel-stick, the lamps swung though the yards on winter evenings, the cairns and drains and outlying fields and the sandstone coping of Anahorish Bridge. He forgot nothing, and took it all in. Because of him, the worlds of his childhood, of his exemplary life, of Northern Ireland, of literature in general, are immeasurably enriched. “And afterwards, rust, thistles, silence, sky.”
Just as a peat bog might contain an elk skeleton, a stick of butter, or the entire, snug corpse of a murder victim, the “word hoard” of English held, for Heaney, infinite discoveries. When he was commissioned to translate “Beowulf,” he said he found the task onerous until he had a breakthrough: he discovered in the Anglo-Saxon text a word he remembered his grandmother using that he hadn’t heard since—“thole,” which means “suffer.” Everything about this epiphany is classic Heaney: finding the seed of English poetry, “Beowulf,” on the tip of his grandmother’s tongue; finding a word so downcast in a memory so warm, the mingled pain and sweetness, history and the hearth.
For all the strength of personality manifest in Heaney's life, it is of course to the poetry that we will return. This is always, as it were, a life altogether elsewhere; and the elsewhere in Heaney is characteristically the life of memory, and specifically the memory of his childhood place, the townlands of his origins whose Irish names – Anahorish, Broagh, Toome, Mossbawn, Bellaghy – are now such an indelible part of English-language poetry, as are their accents, rhythms and people. There is a real sense in which his poetry is permanent homesickness, as the place is returned to again and again, but always with a difference, until its topography becomes the register of an immensely complex psychological, emotional, cultural and political terrain; until the place has become, in fact, in the title of one of Heaney's collections of lectures, the "place of writing".
He carried his fame lightly, easily. He preferred shadow to light; he preferred the half-said, careful, ambiguous remark to the big statement; he liked the slow smile rather than the easy laugh. He enjoyed company, but I always felt he had one eye on the door, and would be happy when the night was over and he could go home.
I remember on our last night together we took a drive to the manor house of Garech Browne, founder of Claddagh records and a champion of traditional Irish music. The house was set in a moody spot next to a black lake, and at the very bottom of a deep valley in the Wicklow Mountains. To my eye, it was as grand and otherworldy as it was “iambic and crepuscular,” but for Seamus it was the home of a friend—a man whom I’d meet a few years later when I was visiting Seamus just after he’d been elected to give the Oxford Lectures in Poetry. But that night, Browne wasn’t at home, and Seamus and I walked to the lake and skipped stones for a bit, and then fooled around throwing sticks into the lake, heaving them like javelins, horsing around, really: and if there’s an image that I retain from those days, it’s of Seamus in an old green sweater with holes in it, clutching in his hand a stick that he’s poised to throw, as I stand next to him with a stick that I’m also poised to throw, and Seamus giving me a look that says I know that we know how ridiculous we look, but let’s do this anyway: and so we did.