Who is on the plum tree?
I think of Poet Laureate, Seamus Heaney, as a family friend. I was blessed to have known him just a little and to have visited his home in Dublin.
He was a gentle giant of a man, one of those rare people that you loved instantly. I suppose when you are in the presence of greatness, you feel it. You are not threatened by it, nor diminished by it; rather it is captivating, inclusive, gives recognition to the spark of what is great in everyone else within orbit. That kind of greatness is intrinsically imbued with love. Seamus Heaney was a soul-infused being, someone in whom the the soul had taken possession, flooding and lighting his every gentle, yet challenging thought. Challenging, Yes! Always challenging, but in a way that allowed space for others to grow in thought, word and heart.
In his home, I felt welcomed as if I were of interest to him, even though, I really was not, being a no one in the scheme of things. Even then, before he had received the Nobel Prize, before he had come so spectacularly to play such a role on the world stage, I knew how great he was. He was a lovely man, attractive in every way.
His accolades are never-ending…a Poet Laureate, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the T. S. Eliot Prize, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service, Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, E. M. Forster Award, New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year, St. Louis Literary Award, Costa Book of the Year, Lannan Literary Award for Poetry. He was hailed as the most important poet since W.B. Yeats.
I was also lucky enough to hear him speaking at University College Dublin. He was chairing a conference on whether English is the language of colonialism.
We heard from poets and dissident writers from all over the world, some of whom had been imprisoned for speaking out against colonialistic or treacherous regimes. At the end of this wonderful event, Seamus Heaney summed up by saying he didn’t think English was a language of colonialism ~ oppression was not why, for example, the Irish learned to speak English so well and uniquely. English lanlordism, poverty and the advent of soup kitchens and such-like might have been a reason that people turned from speaking Gaelic to English, but in the long-run, people the world over speak English because it is a language in which you can dream, a language of beauty through which people might express a personal and collective soul.
I interpreted what Heaney was saying as follows: the breadth of English, the sound of its music is flexible enough to speak the soul of the rocks and mountains, the rain and sky, embracing the thoughts and feelings of any people’s bloodied landscape or troubled heart. The language itself is personal and universal.
When I met Seamus Heaney, I was touched by his modesty, reason, temperance and wit. I am deeply saddened by his passing, as I know people whose lives he touched across the world will also be. I shall be inspired by the words he has bequeathed us all. I shall drink and devour them and try to be a better writer because of people like him.
Thank you, Seamus for all you have given to the world. Poetry will always live through people like you, through minds like yours that soar to the heavens and challenge even the gods – never though, with an arrogant heart, but with a god-given desire for freedom and soul-expression, a constant reaching for beauty, for the fire that might illuminate the world’s ugliness. And you did all this whilst never turning you back on suffering, fact, truth or reality.