Seamus Heaney was our best poet, a mile away.
Since his death on August 30 of last year, nothing in Irish poetry is, or can be, the same. When I was invited to take the lead of Poetry Ireland Critic, I knew the first thing I wanted to do was have a number dedicated to him. Being the person he was, many poets, friends and colleagues had already paid a warm tribute to his gifts as a poet and as a man. Instead, I wanted to focus on the work, on the rich collection of extraordinary poems that he left in its wake.
Reading his work is a way of seeing what poetry is capable of; what a well-done poem, in his wildest dreams, can achieve. We all learn from him. So I invited 50 young poets (mostly) from Ireland, the UK and the US to write a short essay on a single poem that was close to their hearts. “Younger” because I thought it would be a working gauge of the depth and breadth of his poetic heritage. The countries I chose because Seamus was present, professionally and personally, in everyone.
What I hoped for was careful reading, a careful and insightful investigation into how each poem worked – something akin to looking inside an 18th-century long case clock to examine the mechanism. I knew that wouldn’t explain the thing, that a poem doesn’t work mechanically, (and that maybe that’s exactly why we love a poem, when we do), but I thought it would be nice to open the back of the thing and take a little peek anyway.
Generally, the response I received was that nothing would make the poet more happy than to sit down with a poem by Seamus Heaney and try to figure out how he pulled off the magic tricks of his most poems. magical and most loved.
I left the choice of Heaney’s poem entirely to each poet. I thought it wouldn’t matter if there were crosses; that it would, in fact, be a nice bonus for the reader to see the single poem approached from different points of view, different anchor points, so to speak. In fact, there are very few crosses. It seems simple to say that his work is so deep and his influence so broad that so many poets love so many different poems, but it is not. Is there, I wonder, another poet for whom the same claim could be made?
Guide, manual, tribute album: the essays in this issue are even more than I expected. Each comes with its own original poem, so it’s possible to see immediately and exactly how each contributor’s careful reading applies. Among the 50 contributors are Simon Armitage, Christian Wiman, Caitríona O’Reilly, Alan Gillis, Michael Hofmann, Jane Yeh, Nick Laird, Monica Youn, Leontia Flynn, Lavinia Greenlaw, Jamie McKendrick, Sean O’Brien, Daisy Fried, Carl Phillips and Francis Leviston.
The issue is illustrated by a 16-page insert of photographs and other images, most of them taken from Emory University’s flagship exhibit, Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens, hosted by Professor Geraldine Higgins, Director of Irish Studies at Emory. Cover images, kindly provided by Marie Heaney, feature unseen late photographs of Seamus.
I am very grateful to each poet for taking on the task with such grace and enthusiasm. Wise, generous and alert, these 50 essays prove, I hope, a fitting tribute to a poet who mattered so deeply to us writers and readers, for whom his work lasts so wonderfully.
Poetry Ireland Review Issue 113: A special issue of Seamus Heaney is now available.