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Kevin Cullen

A life of engagement and wondrous words

Seamus Heaney taught for 20 years at Harvard.

associated press/file/1970

Seamus Heaney taught for 20 years at Harvard.

If, as Robert Lowell once observed, Seamus Heaney was the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, he certainly didn’t act like it 11 years ago when he walked into a small, claustrophobic classroom in the Barker Center at Harvard.

He looked like a farmer, and if he hadn’t left rural County Derry all those years ago, he might well have been one. That would have been fine with Seamus. Because he loved the land as much as he loved words.

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I was auditing Helen Vendler’s class on Heaney’s poetry, and to this day I have no idea why Helen let me sit in. I was a Nieman Fellow, on a yearlong vacation at Harvard, and I think she, the greatest of critics of Heaney’s work, pitied me. When Heaney walked in, he eyed me warily. He knew me, the way spies know each other, having bumped into each other at strange times in strange places they’d prefer to deny.

Heaney was his usual self during the class: funny, self-deprecating, perceptive, and genuinely interested in the students. Before he won the Nobel Prize, Heaney was a regular fixture at Harvard, traveling to Cambridge with his wife, Marie, to teach since the late 1970s. In 1983, Bob Kiely, then the housemaster, gave Heaney a modest guest suite adjacent to the I-entry at Adams House. Heaney loved his sojourns to Cambridge, saying his charges belied the stereotype of privileged Harvard students, because they were earnest, down-to-earth kids. Who just happened to have scored a zillion on their SATs.

As class broke up that day, Heaney was eyeing me, no doubt in shock that I had kept my mouth shut for an hour. Helen leaned in and explained the arrangement — the price of auditing the seminar was that I wouldn’t say a word. He meandered over.

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“What are you doing this afternoon?” he asked, vaguely.

“Nothing,” I replied, shrugging.

As he wrote of another, Seamus Heaney ‘represented something better than we have grown used to.’

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“Stop by my office at half 5,” he said, conspiratorially. “We’ll take it from there.”

This was typical Seamus: when I went to his office just off Quincy Street, he insisted on introducing me to every secretary and custodian within a donkey’s roar.

“Kevin,” he said, shepherding me over to a woman carrying manila folders, “this is Sheila. Sheila, this is Kevin. He’s a journalist. Tell him nothing.”

It was a sly rewording of his 1975 poem about the menace in his native Northern Ireland, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.”

I suggested we retire to Daedalus, the Joycean-themed restaurant on Mount Auburn Street, sandwiched between Adams and Quincy houses.

“Perfect,” Heaney replied. “I have to be at Adams House for dinner with the masters at 7:30, sharp.”

No problem, I assured him. You’ll be there in plenty of time.

Aside from the restaurant’s name, I knew Heaney would like the owners, a pair of Galway-born brothers, Laurence and Brendan Hopkins. And of course, the three of them were talking like old friends in no time. Seamus informed them how much he admired Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century poet and Jesuit priest.

“Ah, Jayziz,” Laurence said, clapping Seamus on the shoulder, “he’s not one of our lot.”

Like most Irish, the Hopkins brothers learned Heaney poems by osmosis. Like Yeats’s verse, Heaney’s words are internalized, memorized from a young age in Ireland, murmured, as Yeats put it, “as a mother names her child when sleep at last has come on limbs that had run wild.”

Over the course of nearly two hours at Daedalus, Seamus said hello to a score of people, many of whom approached, saying they hadn’t seen him in ages. After winning the Nobel, Heaney’s international obligations soared, and his Harvard teaching gig got more sporadic. Most of the people whom Heaney recognized at Daedalus were what you would call ordinary people: guys from the Harvard maintenance staff, a cook from Adams House, a secretary in one of the dean’s offices, a librarian from the Widener.

Seamus Heaney the person was, like his poetry, remarkably accessible. And while, as a Nobel laureate, he consorted with the great and the good, he was more comfortable with the not so great and the not so good. If writing is a lonely, solitary pursuit, he was the most sociable of poets. He loved people as much as words.

He grew up in humble circumstances in County Derry, in the north of Ireland, and it was that place that we talked about whenever we got together. So much of Heaney’s life, and so much of his poetry, unfolded against the backdrop of the Troubles, when Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists were engaged in murderous tumult. Heaney was a Catholic nationalist. He famously declined honors from the Queen. But he was not sectarian, and he lost friends from both sides to both sides. His poem, “Casualty,” was about a friend, Louis O’Neill, who was killed by a bomb in 1972. Some blamed the IRA, some blamed the more likely culprits, the loyalists. As if it mattered.

That evening in Daedalus, Seamus and I talked about a murder I had covered five years earlier, a murder that deeply affected him. It happened in 1997, just as the Troubles were winding down, just as it appeared that, as Seamus put it, hope and history would rhyme. It happened in Bellaghy, a sleepy little village in County Derry where Seamus grew up, and it happened to a man, Sean Brown, whom Heaney knew and admired.

Sean Brown was a teacher by profession, but his passion was Gaelic games. He was chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Bellaghy, which is why loyalist extremists murdered him. To them, Gaelic sports were a badge of Irish nationalism, something they hated. But to Brown’s Protestant neighbors, his murder was an obscenity, because he was a kind and generous man to all he knew, without regard to their religion. There was a poem read at Sean Brown’s funeral. It wasn’t written by Heaney, but by Brown’s 12-year-old neighbor, Fiona Smyth, a Protestant. In it, she recalled that Sean Brown was kind to her and greeted her every day the same way: “Hello Fiona, how was school today?”

“I remember that,” Seamus Heaney said, almost to himself, that day we shared in Cambridge, nodding his head almost imperceptibly so that Laurence Hopkins would pour him a shot of Jameson. “The murder of Sean Brown hurt my soul.”

I’ll never forget what he said, and how he said it. It hurt my soul.

Heaney was in Greece when he learned of Sean Brown’s murder, having just visited the place where the first Olympic games were held, and it struck him that it was a crime not just against humanity but against the ancient Olympic spirit, where sportsmen confined their battles to the athletic field.

Two years before, when Seamus returned to his hometown after winning the Nobel Prize, Sean Brown had presented him with a painting of Lough Beg, and the celebration, which Brown organized, was noteworthy because everybody, Protestant and Catholic, turned out to greet the local boy made good.

“He represented something better than we have grown used to, something not quite covered by the word ‘reconciliation’, because that word has become a policy word,” Heaney wrote in a tribute to Brown. “This was more like a purification, a release from what the Greeks called the miasma, the stain of spilled blood. It is a terrible irony that the man who organized such an event should die at the hands of a sectarian killer.”

I think of Seamus Heaney the same way. He represented something better than we have grown used to. He was, as Lowell said, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. But it’s only partially accurate to describe Heaney as an Irish poet, because while his Irishness informed his work and certainly his identity, he was a citizen and a poet of the world. For all his nationalism, he loved English poets. He loved Keats as much as Yeats. He believed that if countries were run by poets instead of politicians, we’d all be much better off. He loved Vaclav Havel, the poet who led the Czechs to freedom, and he especially loved Michael D. Higgins, Ireland’s president and a poet of some regard himself.

And, it goes without saying, he loved above all else his kids and his Marie, his wife. Marie and the land were the great loves of his life, and his ode to Marie managed to evoke both of them:

Love, I shall perfect for you the child

Who diligently potters in my brain

Digging with heavy spade till sods were piled

Or puddling through muck in a deep drain.

It was getting close to 7:30 that night in Cambridge 11 years ago. I was checking the clock. Seamus, as the Irish say, couldn’t be arsed. He was due for dinner with the Adams House masters, Sean and Judy Palfrey, and I knew there would be hell to pay if I delivered him late. Sean and Judy are not just pediatricians, working with some of the most vulnerable kids in Boston, they’re also my pals. I wasn’t going to diss them by keeping their distinguished guest at a bar around the corner all night.

But when I told the great man from Bellaghy it was time to go, he squinted up at the clock, nodded toward Laurence Hopkins, leaned into me and said, in that delicious south Derry sotto voce, “Ach, we’ll have one for the ditch, will we?”

So he was 15 minutes late. We said our farewells outside Adams House.

“God bless you, St. Kevin,” Seamus Heaney said, bowing gallantly, and I laughed because I remembered how he had prominently mentioned St. Kevin during his Nobel lecture in Stockholm in 1995. Seamus and Marie had lived in County Wicklow, not far from Glendalough, the monastic site where St. Kevin lived in the seventh century. In his lecture, Seamus recalled the story of St. Kevin kneeling and praying at Glendalough with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross.

“A blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it, and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree,” Seamus told the audience in Stockholm. “Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.”

Seamus Heaney was very much like St. Kevin in that he held out his hands until the eggs that were his verses hatched, grew wings, and flew away, all over the world. He dared to leave the bog. He made words a weapon of wonder and tolerance. He walked on air against his better judgment.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.
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