One of the great Irish singers died today. Seamus Heaney passed away today in Dublin at the age of 74.
Heaney was one of the world’s great poets, of course, and a winner of the Nobel Prize in 1995. He often has been considered as important an Irish poet as Yeats. “Death of a Naturalist” is his first volume, and later collections include “Station Island,” “The Spirit Level,” “District and Circle” and “Human Chain.” But I call Heaney a singer because of my memory of the only occasion when I heard him read.
In the mid-1990s, Heaney was invited by poet Robert Mezey to read his work at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Mezey, now retired, taught poetry at Pomona. The reading took place in a lovely, long, warmly lit drawing room, filled with books and high-back chairs. Heaney read at a fragile podium, with one small lamp clamped to its top. The light lit his book and left his face in shadow.
I can’t recall Heaney reading any of his own poems that evening. That embarrasses me. I feel as if I’ve allowed a few treasures to be misplaced forever. Despite that, his reading was unforgettable. It changed my experience of poetry. Before reading his own work, Heaney said he wanted to read W.B. Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I don’t remember what he said about it. (There’s another gem that rolled into a mouse hole somewhere in my mind.) I’d taken in that poem from the page a few times over the years, but never before had I heard it. That night, I heard the music in poetry for the first time in my life. Heaney’s reading of the poem was, very much, like a beautiful song, an exquisite melody that could make one cry.
Today I came across Heaney’s poem “Digging.” It’s a tribute to Heaney’s father and the laboring work he did. If Heaney’s death is the loss of a great Irish singer, then this poem shows us we’ve lost one of Ireland’s great workers as well.
A few hours after learning the news of Heaney’s death, I emailed John Menaghan, a poet and professor of English at LMU as well as director of the Irish Studies Program. I wanted to ask him what he thought of Heaney and his work. Menaghan sent me this:
“One summer 10 years or so ago I found myself in Mulligan’s, a pub near the Trinity College campus that has a reputation for attracting writers and journalists. It was a quiet night, and I sat alone at one end of the bar, waiting for my pint of Guinness to settle before taking a sip. While waiting, I cast my eyes around the room, only to discover, sitting at the opposite end of the bar, the great Seamus Heaney. To my further surprise, he was also alone. Two opposite impulses arose in me. One was the obvious one, that I should seize this chance to slide down the bar and have a chat with him. The other was to leave him alone, because it occurred to me that there must be very few times in recent years when he’d been able to have a quiet pint in a pub, without being besieged by people wanting to be able to say they’d had a personal encounter with Seamus Heaney. And no one else in the pub was bothering him, so why should I? In the end, I left him alone, and a part of me always regretted it. Because although over the years I saw him read numerous times and even at one reading went up to introduce myself and thank him for a great reading, I felt I had missed my chance to get to know him in the more relaxed setting of the pub, and perhaps even become friends. Yet another part of me still thinks I might have done the right thing to leave him alone that night and let him enjoy his own company. And today, when I heard he was gone, it was seeing him alone at the end of the bar in Mulligan’s, rather than giving a reading in any number of venues large and small, that came back to me most powerfully, and made me feel a wordless connection with this great master of language who was, in that time and place, just another Irishman sitting in a pub, enjoying his quiet pint.”