I first read Seamus Heaney my freshman year of college. It was spring term, which at Hanover means only one class every day, all through May, and I was taking twentieth century poetry. Yeah that’s right, my class was two hours a day reading and discussing poetry. Deal with it. Anyways, we had two textbooks for the course: a thick Norton anthology called Modern Poems or something like that with typical generic modern art on the cover and containing everything from Whitman and Kipling to Eliot and Cummings and then this thin little volume with an all black cover and only the poet’s name in green and the collection’s title in yellow. In retrospect, it was kind of an odd juxtaposition. The Norton was teeming with all kinds of sensory overload, seeming to have been designed specifically to be intimidating and a bit overwhelming. Then there was District and Circle by Heaney, a narrow, lightweight book whose seventy-eight pages were decidedly sparse. While Norton certainly introduced me to a wide variety of groundbreaking poets, none have stuck with me to the degree that Heaney’s little collection has.
Now, it must be noted that this longevity is not due entirely to the poetry itself. A little over a year ago, my brother and sister-in-law tied the knot and they asked me to read one of Heaney’s poem at the ceremony. The poem, one from a sequence called “Clearances,” describes an everyday moment of love, of coming close and pulling away, of domestic intimacy as the poet and his wife bring drying linen off the line. It is a beautiful poem, and no doubt that this personal connection may color my affection for Heaney a bit. But just a bit, I promise.
After Heaney’s death about a week ago, I picked up District and Circle and began rereading the poems, one by one. It really is a remarkable collection, saturated with the weights and textures of everyday life. Heaney has a natural affinity for the heft of words, for their shape and density, for their impact on the mind. His poems are condensed studies in memory, sensation, and our connection with the physical world. Even his love poems are rooted in physical objects, often in unexpected ways, like in “The Aerodrome,” where the poet meditates on a local airport’s changing identity. As he traces its history, from military installation to grass to warehouses to CEO villa, the poet recalls his own connections with this piece of local legend. He recalls when a young pilot tried to, for lack of a more poetic phrase, steal his girl, “But for her part, in response, only the slightest/ Back-stiffening and standing of her ground/ As her hand reached down and tightened around mine.” It is Heaney’s way to find the personal in the national, to tie local history and change into personal history and change. Beyond his remarkable language, it is his heart for something as cliché as a love poem that sets him apart. So when he closes “The Aerodrome” saying, “If self is a location, so is love:/ Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points,/ Options, obstinacies, dug heels, and distance,/ Here and there, now and then, a stance” these feelings become intertwined with history, these bearings stretch across landscapes and time, so that “here and there, now and then” are not trite, cliché phrases, but memories of the place and time that defined and continue to define love or the self. You’ll hear a lot about his more serious poetry, about his ethical bent and ability to address conflict in a genuine and human fashion. But it’s poems like this that always seem to stick out to me, in their approach of the personal and reconstruction of memory.
Following his death, I went ahead and ordered a few more collections of Heaney’s poetry. As they come in, one at a time, I have to admit I’m pretty excited to read more of his work. He’s a fascinating poet, and it’s just a shame it took his death to get me to dig deeper into his poetry. He’s a poet whose voice I will genuinely miss, something I don’t get to say very often.