Even if we didn’t know Seamus Heaney, we felt we knew him. Not only for the poems, or the commentary, but for the generosity of his presence. He was a man you’d see regularly at festivals and readings. He made his way through crowds with an open expression, tolerant of the interest of strangers. If he caught your eye he’d smile, as if he knew you. We’d know the cadences and timbre of his voice anywhere. We listened when he spoke. If he posed a question, we’d at least consider the possibility of answers.
At the Poetry Now festival in Dun Laoghaire, year after year, he took his place in the audience like anyone else and listened to other poets read. He looked for no special treatment. He came even on years when he wasn’t due to read himself, as he was meant to do this year, next week. He supported many writers, events and causes with his presence and encouragement. He came among us, not as a politician comes, looking for votes, not as a businessman looking for clients or deals, or a constituent looking for favours. He didn’t ask for anything in return, he came as any of us came, to listen, to lend support to the occasion. He must have known how much the fact of his presence meant to everyone else, but he never showed it.
He has been called an ambassador for poetry. He carried that flame through all kinds of crowds, all kinds of situations, and aroused no bitterness, no scorn, envy or spite, despite his success. How rare is that?
Remembering him in this public setting or that, it becomes apparent that he brought the attention of all that learning, the depth of reflection and his sweet, rare gift, to the work of others. In other words, he was not only a much loved poet and spokesman, he was also a generous audience and reader. There’s something deeply buried in that thought, about the practice and the preaching, that will take time and thought to unravel. Seamus Heaney didn’t only write, he read. He didn’t only speak, he listened. He didn’t only give us words, he was receptive to the words of others.
And he was an ambassador for all of us. When he went out into the world we could be proud, confident that he wouldn’t let us down. Again, how rare is that?
It’s heartwrenching that people of the calibre, gravitas and international standing, not to mention the affection in which they were held, of Maeve Binchy, Dennis O’Driscoll and now Seamus Heaney have all died within (almost) a year of each other. They leave a chill vacuum. Who will hold the mirror for us now? Who will represent our better selves, at home or abroad?
(RTE showed Charlie McCarthy’s brilliant, award-winning documentary: Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous last night http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10194512/)