What Seamus Heaney Meant to Me

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney, 1970. Photo: Simon Garbutt

One of my favourite poets, who had a significant influence on me, is also one of the world’s most-loved poets, who had a significant influence on the latter half of the twentieth century. Now Seamus Heaney is gone.

The sound of a giant falling is so tremendous that whatever we say afterward must be done in a whisper. It occurs to me that quietly retracing the ways in which this wonderful poet influenced my personal relationship to poetry could serve not only as the telling of a somewhat universal tale, but also as a personal tribute.

A version of that story took the form of an essay I wrote in connection with the Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree that I completed at Pacific University in 2009. That paper is now available in full on Academia.edu.

In the paper, I trace his influence on me–appearing first in my undergraduate days to read Beowulf, then later through his work as an encouraging and admonishing father-figure, drawing out my own “troubles” into song. In truth, I could not have written The Silence Teacher without him.

Heaney navigated many polarities: Protestant and Catholic, farmer and academic, poet and critic. He took in many influences, including Dante, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Patrick Kavanagh, Ossip Mandelastam, T.S. Eliot, and others.

He eschewed “earnestness”, and came to embrace a wild associativity tempered by sound musicality. Capacious and encompassing, he showed what lyric poetry is most capable of achieving–a more complete human “adequacy” beyond simple political rhetoric; a “ring of truth within the medium itself.”

Seamus Heaney, the man, is gone from us. Seamus Heaney, the giant of poetry, still casts his shadow far.