Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

As I clawed my way free of the grip of Modernism early in my literary life, Seamus Heaney was one of the first post-Modern, contemporary poets whose work I fell in love with the moment I began reading it. Heaney died today in Dublin at the age of 74. As fellow Irish poet Michael Longley said today, “I feel like I’ve lost a brother and there are tens of thousands of people today who will be feeling personally bereaved…”

I write a lot about “connections” — how archaeology connects us through our shared human heritage, but also how one can discover unexpected connections with a beloved poet. Having cast aside the New Criticism of the Modernists, I fully embrace the power that a sense of personal connection brings to the reading of poetry.

And yet, any sense of personal connection to Heaney was always tangential at best. I bought my copy of Human Chain at a bookstore in Dublin a block away from Trinity College, and I harbored a brief, secret hope that I would run into the poet taking a walk in St. Stephen’s Green. Earlier, I picked up District and Circle in London. In other words, my only connection to Seamus Heaney in life was through my purchase history — not really the stuff of inspiration.

What, then, about Heaney’s poetry do I find so personally attractive? It’s simple, really — and more than a little obvious, if you’ve read anything I’ve written: It’s the words.

Watch this beautiful compilation from footage over the years of Seamus Heaney reading his iconic ars poetica “Digging.”

Though I can assure you that the influence was entirely unconscious, astute readers will observe a straight line from “Digging” to my own “Waiting for Work to Begin” (which I wrote more than a decade after I first read Heaney).

There is an inevitable shared language among poets of the Pacific Northwest and of Ireland. From W.B. Yeats to William Stafford and from Seamus Heaney to myself, we set our poetry against the same backdrop of wind and rain, of moss and soil. We flit back and forth between the city and the wilderness; the interplay between fellow humans figures as prominently in our work as the balance between ourselves and the natural world around us.

Yeats, Joyce, MacNeice, Roethke, Stafford, Hugo, Wagoner, Kinsella, Longley, Heaney, Muldoon, and so many more — perhaps there is a “green” school of poetry that spans centuries, literary movements, and continents. If there is such a school of poets, count me among them.