Steve Logan writes: The disclosures of art are as profound as they are symbolic. Everyone who enjoys an artist’s work is likely to feel that they have a personal relationship with the artist. I never met Seamus Heaney, yet felt, as no doubt many did, that when he died I had suffered a personal loss.
Every such relationship is unique. Mine was founded on three main things: a single exchange of letters in which Heaney commented in detail on my first collection of poems; the experience of talking over many years about his work with students; and, further back, the discovery of Heaney, during adolescence, in a book called Worlds.
There was a picture in this book of him and his wife walking through a field. Something about it made him seem approachable and akin. He looked like a countryman, not unlike those in the South Wales valley where I grew up, and yet he was a poet, his longish hair aligning him vaguely with the musical culture I was part of.
Later, when I began to read the poems, I realised that this intuition of Heaney as a man who inhabited the world of literature with a certain creative unease was not inaccurate. As a university teacher I read the essays in which he describes (with touching candour) his own attempts to become inward with a range of idioms and experience as alien to him, a Co Derry nationalist, as to myself, a Welshman whose father was baptised Robert Emmet.
Yet I recognised in Heaney also an ease which I lacked. He kept his native accent and continued to live in Ireland. And he had, by his own account, no feeling for the forms of music which I perform and compose ‑ although one of his children is a drummer.
Gradually, I moved towards my own version of ease: thinking of myself primarily as a musician and a poet who worked in universities. One of the first poems I wrote, confirming myself insecurely in this role, was written in in Dublin, when my wife gave me as an anniversary present a volume of Heaney’s essays.
By such means are formed our obscure personal attachments to poets we haven’t met and yet profoundly know. My poem, written in Wales in the hour I heard of Seamus Heaney’s death, is a meditation on this common mystery.
For Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
Tone-deaf to mysteries of the common art
Of drums and bass and sobbing rock guitar
You nimbled over cadences that fell across your tongue:
The sunlight of good nature showing silver in the grain
Of vowels that hugged the bank of your ancestral home
And consonants that clattered, clumped and oozed
But always with reluctance skittered through the teeth to hiss –
Your favoured tones being gentle rough and smooth
As a poor scholar’s progress through the schools
Where you met masters, angels, aspirants and fools
For love of poetry and all it might achieve
In caverns of the heart where now your lovers grieve.
I never shook your hand although I spoke your very words
Through years among the students of your style
Back in an alien study I felt easy when I heard
The sap rise in your poems without guile
Of classes I no more could move among
With native ease than you, who’d never know
The comfort I’d receive from a small photo of you walking
Tweedy, tousled, and at home through fields of corn
Sowing your destiny as you followed a dream,
Your wife beside you, moving slow between the hours
While the sun that made it all possible
Lit your shoulder and tindered up the guttering will
Of the boys who’d follow from a distance,
Hoping for harvest
Looking vaguely up as miracles fell unnoticed from the sky.