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Kevin Cullen

Seamus Heaney: Walking on air against his better judgment

Like everybody else who grew up around Boston, I always thought Harvard had very high standards, until they let me in.

When people ask me what I studied during my Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, I usually reply, “The ceiling at the Plough & Stars.” But the truth is it was a once in a lifetime, enriching experience. I took constitutional law with the incomparable Larry Tribe. I took an extraordinary class about the Vichy regime taught by the extraordinary Patrice Higonnet. I got to watch a young Samantha Power, now the US Ambassador to the UN, get her bearings as a journalist-turned-academic. And the friendship of my Nieman classmates, American and foreign-born, is priceless.

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But, for me, the indisputable highlight of that year was being able to sit in on Helen Vendler’s seminar on Seamus Heaney. Like Heaney, the great Irish poet who died Friday at the age of 74, Vendler is an international treasure. No academic or critic gets Heaney the way she does. At least that’s what Heaney told me.

And that is why getting a spot in her class on Heaney was like hitting the lottery. So many students want in, but she kept it to a cool dozen, because for her digesting the words of Seamus Heaney is akin to a plate of fine oysters: too many and you’ll miss the briny magnificence of those words.

“I’ll let you audit the class,” Helen told me, “but I’ll have to ask you not to speak, because so much of the grade is based on participation that it would take away from the students.”

I assured Helen I’d keep my mouth shut, and frankly I was far more interested in what Helen and the undergrads, most of them English majors, thought of Heaney.

All bets were off, though, when the great man from Bellaghy himself walked into the classroom at the Barker Center one day 11 years ago. He looked at me, sitting there like a slob with a baseball cap on my head and shook his. We had met a number of times before, most memorably at a Christmas party at the Irish embassy in London, and had what the Irish euphemistically refer to as a session. We had also sat next to each other on more than one Aer Lingus flight, when a wonderful woman named Noreen Courtney used to take pity on me, the poor journalist, and he, the poor poet, and bump us up to first class.

Heaney was his usual self during the class: self-effacing, funny, 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. In 1983, Bob Kiely, then the housemaster, gave Heaney a modest guest suite adjacent to the I-entry door at Adams House. Heaney loved his regular sojourns to Cambridge, saying his charges belied the stereotype of privileged Harvard students, because they were earnest, down to earth kids. Who just happen to have scored a zillion on their SATs.

As class broke up that day 11 years ago, 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. He meandered over.

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

“Nothing,” I replied, shrugging.

“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 an arse’s roar.

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

It was a sly reworking 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’ verse, Heaney’s words are internalized, memorized, from a young age in Ireland, murmured, as Yeats might have 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, what was noticeable was how many people Heaney said hello to, either he recognizing them as they walked past or when they approached and said they hadn’t seen him for a while. After the Nobel, Heaney’s international obligations soared, and his Harvard teaching gig got more and more sporadic. What I’ll always remember is that most of the people who Heaney recognized that night at Daedalus were what you would call ordinary people: guys from the Harvard maintenance staff, custodians, a cook from Adams House, a secretary in one of the dean’s offices, and 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, especially poetry, is a lonely, solitary pursuit, Seamus 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 that’s what we talked about mostly when we shared some time. I spent many years covering Northern Ireland, and I had been to many of the places where Heaney had spent his youth. When we used the word Toomebridge in conversation, it didn’t evoke the place near Heaney’s birth as much as it reminded us of the killing of Roddy McCorley, the radical Presbyterian who was a leader of the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798. Heaney saw that as such a lost opportunity, when Irishmen — Protestant, Catholic and dissenter — rose together against British oppression. And it was at Toome that civil rights demonstrators were beaten by police, presaging the Troubles that would engulf Northern Ireland in 1969 and last for the next four decades.

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 to both sides. His poem, “Casualty,” was about a friend, Louis O’Neill, who was killed by a bomb in 1972.

That evening at the bar in Daedalus, Seamus and I talked about a murder I had covered, 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 Heaney grew up, and it happened to a man, Sean Brown, who Heaney knew and admired.

Sean Brown was a teacher by profession, but his passion was Gaelic games, especially Gaelic football. 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 Sean Brown’s Protestant neighbors, his murder was an obscenity, because he was a kind and generous man to all his neighbors, 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 greeted her every day the same way: “Hello Fiona, how was school today?”

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

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

He was in Greece when he learned of Sean Brown’s murder, just after visiting the stadium 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.

When Seamus returned to his hometown after winning the Nobel Prize, Sean Brown presented him with a painting of Lough Beg, and the celebration, organized by Brown, was noteworthy because everybody, Protestant and Catholic alike, turned out to greet a 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,” Seamus Heaney wrote in a tribute to his friend Sean 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, without doubt, as Robert 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 be much better off. He loved Vaclav Havel, the poet who led the Czechs to freedom, and he really loved Michael Higgins, Ireland’s current president and a poet of some regard himself.

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

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 had a 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 pediatricians, working with some of the most vulnerable kids in Boston, and they’re also my pals. I wasn’t going to diss them by keeping their distinguished dinner 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 often he had 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 7th 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 was his verse 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. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeCullen.
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