I want to write about Seamus Heaney, but first I want to write about Nora Ephron. It’s just over a year since Nora Ephron died. It is, in fact, a year and two months since Nora Ephron died. When she died, I was asked to write about her (for The Independent) and to talk about her (for Night Waves on Radio 3). I was happy to do this, since I loved her work.
“You are,” she wrote, in the final essay of her wonderful collection of essays, I Remember Nothing, “suddenly in a lottery, the ultimate game of chance”. She was talking about old age. She wasn’t, she wrote, “really old”. “Really old,” she wrote, “is eighty,” and she was sixty-nine. But suddenly, she wrote, “everywhere you look there’s cancer. Once a week there’s some sort of bad news. Once a month there’s a funeral… People who run four miles a day and eat only nuts and berries drop dead.”
Nora Ephron didn’t, as far as I know, run four miles a day. She didn’t, as far as I know, only eat nuts and berries, though she didn’t, by all accounts, eat much. But she was only 71 when she died. And Seamus Heaney, who died 10 days ago, was 74. Which isn’t “really old” at all.
Since he died, I’ve been trying not to think about him. I’ve been trying not to read about him, or to hear the lovely things people have been saying about him, or to look at footage of his funeral. I know this is strange. I know that when a great poet dies, it should be possible to read the things that have been written about him without feeling that it will make you so sad you wish you hadn’t. It should certainly be possible when the person you’re reading about is barely an acquaintance, and certainly not a friend. But the fact is this: like tens of thousands of people around the globe, I can’t help feeling that that world is a poorer place without Seamus Heaney in it.
I never met Nora Ephron. I did meet Seamus Heaney. I met him many times and would like to be able to write about some of the things he said and did. Unfortunately, I can’t. The reason I can’t is the reason I want to talk about Nora Ephron, too. In the title essay of her collection, I Remember Nothing, she lists some of the people she’s met. There was Eleanor Roosevelt. There was Groucho Marx. There was Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Robert Morley, and Dorothy Parker. You’d have thought you couldn’t meet people like this and not be able to give at least a few anecdotes. But Nora Ephron says she can’t. She can’t, she says, because she can’t remember anything about the meetings at all.
It wouldn’t be true to say “I remember nothing” about my meetings with Seamus Heaney, but I can’t remember much. This was a man who produced some of the finest poems in the English language. This was a man who knew, better than almost anyone, how one word should follow the next. But I can’t remember any of the words he said. What I can remember is his face, the face of an Irish farmer who’s been working in the fields, and his eyes, which always seemed to crinkle in the corners as if he was suppressing a smile. And I remember his voice.
By the time I had worked at the South Bank Centre for eight years, and listened to about 100 poets a year reading from their work, and by the time I had worked at the Poetry Society for four years, and listened to a fair few more, I think it would be fair to say that a poetry reading wasn’t always my top choice of entertainment for an evening off. But Seamus Heaney could read a telephone directory and make it sound like Shakespeare. Or at least we all imagined he could. The fact is he didn’t. The fact is that what he read was collections of words that amounted, as his friend and fellow poet Michael Longley has said, to miracles.
Today, at last, I have read some of the obituaries. I won’t repeat the beautiful things that people have been saying about his work. You could spend a whole lifetime studying it. Seamus Heaney may have been a farmer’s son from the rural North, and one who said that he would continue the “digging” of his forefathers with his pen, but he was also a scholar and an academic. He could resurrect Virgil, and Dante, and Euripedes, as easily, or as apparently easily, as he could write about picking blackberries, or drying clothes, or digging up potatoes on his father’s farm. But he didn’t do it easily, of course. Nothing as good as that is ever easy. Like all great artists, what he did was hide the effort.
Not all that many poems can make you gasp out loud. In every one of Seamus Heaney’s 13 collections of poetry, there were several that did, and do. On the Today programme at the beginning of this year, he talked about falling in love with poetry as a child, after hearing Gerard Manley Hopkins read aloud. “It was the voltage of the language,” he said. “It was entrancing.” And he should know. In Electric Light, the title poem of the collection he published in 2001, he remembers the “candle-grease congealed, dark-streaked with wick-soot” gloom of the first house where he saw “electric light”, and of how, as a small child, if he “stood on the bow-backed chair”, he could just reach the switch. He was talking about electricity, but he was also, of course, talking about poetry.
Like any poet from the North, he couldn’t get away from The Troubles. But he had, he said, “an early warning system” telling him, when the subject was raised, “to get back inside” his “own head”. “This is limbo land at best,” he once said, “and at worst the country of the damned.” Even now, when you go to Belfast, you can see how you could watch the rituals of hate, and not know – really not know – if there’s anything much more to say. (I was there two weeks ago. It was still a shock to see the murals, on the Falls Road, and the massive gates, like prison gates, and Union flags, on the Shankhill Road. It was even stranger to see, in the Botanical Gardens on the other side of this tiny city, a festival celebrating multiculturalism, with people dancing in saris, and walking, in turbans, on stilts. Near the tent for India, and the one for China, there was a tent with a label that said “Ireland”. Oh to have seen what Heaney did with that!) But Seamus Heaney did what a poet can do. He made his own allegiance clear – “my passport’s green”, he said in his poem “Open Letter” – and then made it clear that while poetry can do many things, it can’t end wars.
He wrote poetry, he said, in his poem “Personal Helicon”, “To see myself/to set the darkness echoing”. And he certainly did. He “set the darkness echoing”, but he didn’t just do it through his poems. If I can’t remember the words he said, on the occasions I met him, first when I worked at Faber, and then at poetry readings he gave at the South Bank, I do remember the aura around him. Yes, it was partly fame. He was, after all, “Famous Seamus”, and one of the few poets in the world who was constantly stopped in the street. But the aura that surrounded him was much more than fame. It was warmth, and kindness, and fun.
Always, there would be people claiming to be his cousin, or his friend. Always, he found time for them. Always, at least on the occasions I was there to see it, he made the time to sign books for all the people who queued up. And always, he spoke to people as if he was thrilled to see them. As if, in fact, it was an honour for him to meet them.
After he was awarded the Nobel prize, in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depths which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”, the world, which had always wanted him, tried to eat him up. It was, said Heaney, with his usual gentle grace, “a mostly benign avalanche”. Goodness only knows how he found the time to write the lectures, and do the readings, and – most of all – write the poems. Somehow, in spite of all the demands that were made on him, he did. But the real mystery – the real miracle, we might even think – is bigger than this.
The real mystery is how one of the most famous men in the world, and one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, found the time to encourage other poets, lesser poets – which is pretty much all the poets in the world. I’ve lost count of the poets who have told me, over the years, that Seamus Heaney took the trouble, after they’d published a book, or done a reading, or lost a loved one, to write them a letter, or a note. Yes, Seamus Heaney. That Seamus Heaney. The Seamus Heaney, who probably had as much adoration as anyone can take in a life, and who certainly didn’t need more.
This is why I haven’t wanted to think about his death till now. It’s one thing to meet a great artist. I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and interview, quite a few considerable artists, and a handful I would probably describe as great. But it doesn’t happen all that often in a life that you meet a great human being.
A few years ago, Dennis O’Driscoll, who was also a considerable poet, and an exceptionally kind man, and who died last year at the shockingly early age of 58, told me something that made me laugh. Needless to say, I can’t remember the details, but it was, I think, about some public event in Dublin. He told me that Seamus Heaney had given a speech and had actually quoted me. Dennis, who wrote a wonderful book about Heaney called Stepping Stones, which was based on a series of interviews, used to collect things people said about poetry, and poets. He published a book of them, and Seamus Heaney must have read it there. “Life is short,” I apparently wrote, in an article I’ve now forgotten, “and so, thank God, are most poems.” If I ever thought it was at all funny, I certainly don’t now.
Life is short. I’ve had cancer twice, and I bless every day I’m alive. I bless what Seamus Heaney called, in his poem “On His Work in the English Tongue”, written in memory of Ted Hughes, “language that can still knock language sideways”. I bless the people who can do that. And if any of them can give us goodness too, then that’s – well, that’s, to use that word again, something like a miracle.
In the last essay in I Remember Nothing, Nora Ephron said she used to love the sound of geese on Long Island. But then she began to think that they were a reminder that the summer wasn’t going to last for ever, and then she said that “they became a sign not just that summer would come to an end, but that so would everything else”. She stopped liking the geese, she said, but she started liking hummingbirds instead. “I love to watch them,” she said, “because they’re so busy getting the most out of life.”
Seamus Heaney did get the most out of life. He, in fact, got plenty: the love of his wife and family, and friends, talent almost any artist would kill for, some money and quite a lot – more than he wanted, in fact – of fame. But he gave so, so much more than he got.