Archive for August 30th, 2013

Au revoir, Seamus Heaney! My two letters from the Nobel laureate

Friday, August 30th, 2013
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Heaney

Generous, humble, and glowing from the inside

“You of all people!”  That’s how my first letter from Seamus Heaney began.  It’s not hard to keep track; there were only two.  This first one was in a large envelope,  addressed in his loose, open handwriting in December 2007.  His Strand Street address was in one corner, and some attractive, carefully chosen stamps with foxgloves, dandelions, and black bog rush.  You see how carefully I still treasure this missive?  I had written half a year before to ask that he contribute his memories to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, and hadn’t received an answer.  When I heard today that he’d died, at 74, I went and pulled the letter out of a storage chest.

“You of all people! I’m very sorry to have overlooked your letter of last July: your book of Conversations with Czeslaw is one of the most helpful and constantly readable, and I’ve admired several reviews,” he wrote. He wanted to contribute, but warned that his memoir would be brief, and asked if I thought this would look “niggardly.” He kindly enclosed another piece on Joseph Brodsky, which he’d written for our mutual friend Valentina Polukhina. He neglected to remind me that he was still recovering from his 2006 stroke when I first wrote him, and had cancelled work for a year afterward.

heaney2Well, this was the man.  He was being humble to me.  It’s a powerful lesson in noblesse oblige, whether in poetry or some other field.  But one has to admit in the literary arena, it’s somewhat rare.  As an editor or journalist, one is more likely to be treated like an annoying tick than a respected colleague.  I pinned the letter to my wall for several years, to look at it in the bad times.

So I even treasured the second letter from Dublin, nine months later, signed simply “Seamus” with handwritten insertions (this one with a stamp featuring sea asters).  He wouldn’t be able to contribute after all.  He was about to set out on a road show with Dennis O’Driscoll (who died before him, I wrote about Seamus’s generous tribute hailing him as “my hero” here) – they’d just published a book-length Q&A called Stepping Stones – plus a TV documentary for his 70th birthday.  Given his schedule, and he was “naturally very sorry not to have been able to deliver a piece that would do credit to Czeslaw and indeed to myself before now.”  Henceforth we communicated back-and-forth through a flurry of emails via the mysterious cyberspace intermediary “Susie,” since she had an email address and he didn’t – he admitted “I’m still at the scriptorium stage of development.” We wound up reprinting his earlier memoir, “In Gratitude for All the Gifts” for the book, written when his fellow Nobelist had died in 2004. And no, it wasn’t “niggardly” at all.  It was, like him, generous and humble and glowing from the inside, like a peat fire in a cold Irish winter.

Postscript from Jane Hirshfield, as always eloquent:

Jane joins the world in mourning the loss of Seamus Heaney, one of its greatest, most eloquent, and most generous poets. She writes: “In his presence and in his words, you felt always the embrace of being. His words brought the burnish of original seeing. You were made, quite simply, more alive by his aliveness, in life and on the page – as in the opening poem from his 2010 collection, Human Chain:

Had I Not Been Awake

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it

It came and went too unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Hurtling like an animal at the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
Afterwards. And not now.

Jane&seamus

Two poets, held in memory…