A Poem For Saturday

Dish poetry editor, Alice Quinn, reflects on the recent death of Seamus Heaney, the famed Irish poet we paid tribute with these three poems:

A friend of mine who lives in Ireland sent me a copy of The Irish Times from Saturday, August 31, 2013, the day after Heaney died. This newspaper, physically huge by American standards – it’s 22 inches deep by 14 inches wide – devoted five full pages to his obituary and commentary, with beautiful photographs of him as a schoolboy in 1954, at an anti-apartheid demonstration in 1985, with his family at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 1995, and at his desk at home in Sandymount in 2009. Also included were the covers of 12 of his books published by Faber & Faber. (Here in the U.S. his work is published with great pride by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

“What does it take to make a great poet?,” wrote Eileen Battershy, the Times’ literary correspondent. “Heaney made it look easy, because his poetic response was so instinctive, that surefooted balance of formal eloquence and the colloquial… Many artists regard themselves as members of the elect, but Heaney was different. He looked to language as sound and meaning. His was a musician’s engagement; there was an ancient, strongly tribal purity at work.”

The Dish ran poems by him just after the tragic news of his death reached our shores. We join the tide of those who can’t stop reading his poems and reflecting on his beautiful spirit and inspiring way of being.

We will post another round of poems by Heaney over the next few days. “Mid-Term Break,” presented below, is the poem that The Irish Times chose to run the day after his death. It’s an elegy to Heaney’s little brother Christopher, who was killed in a road accident at the age of four while Heaney was on scholarship at St. Columb’s College:

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying—
He had always taken funerals in his stride—
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

(From Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 © 1998 by Seamus Heaney. Used by kind permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)