When I first read Heaney (he was always Heaney, never Seamus to me) it was as a student and I didn’t get it. I found the reference points too hard to grasp in the UCD library, a thousand miles from Mossbawn. I wrote an essay about Joyce and Kavanagh and Heaney, about dislocation, moving away from home and them fixated on the places they left. I could understand Kavanagh leaving Monaghan, or even Joyce leaving my beloved university city, but not Heaney leaving Derry. I didn’t understand then the essay was more about me the homebird than about any of them.
It was when I came home to Tipperary to teach that Heaney began to worm his way into my poetry classes. My colleagues know I’d teach poetry all day if I was let, but they might not know that I teach Heaney and Frost by choice even when they aren’t prescribed, always returning to those places: New England and our old Ireland.
It started with Blackberry Picking with the emphasis on familiar landscape and Midterm Break with its heartbreaking description of a family destroyed by a death too soon. A poem I had to return to again and again when my own brother died. Both of these poems produce a gasp from students: first at the smelly fuzz of wasted berries, and then at the four foot box. The visceral images you could smell and see, Heaney is easy for kids because they feel their senses keenly, we adults are dulled by our lives.
Heaney writes the senses: ‘the cool hardness’ of potatoes from Digging transports me back to my own childhood digging spuds with my Dad in his back garden, ‘stumbling in his hobnailed wake’ like Heaney describes in Follower.
It was when Heaney began to appear on the Leaving Cert that I began to read beyond the poetry “in the book”, about omphalos and discovered the sanctity and meaning of home in poems like Mossbawn, Personal Helicon or even A Constable Calls, and started to think about what the centre of my own world was; it came into sharp focus when I had kids of my own, my own followers.
Identity, imagination, the feel of things, the love of words. The love of his wife. Take the Skunk, not an easy poem to introduce to a classroom of girls: “here’s a poem about his wife, it’s called The Skunk”. Blank, angry teenage faces! But then, understanding, they smiled and understood that love they could maybe aspire to feeling. It’s in The Underground too, that early love described by an ageing man looking back.
But more than all this Heaney makes me proud to be a teacher. A teacher and reader of poetry himself, listen to his poems in his own voice and you cannot read them without hearing him, he understood the sound of the teacher’s voice in the classroom, the sound of a reader reading aloud. Teaching poetry is easy when there is clarity, when the image is warm and real, when the poet stays in touch with the outside world, despite his solitary work.
Poetry opens doors into the dark, windows of wonder, and allows us to walk around in rooms we could only have imagined, ‘where he expends himself in shape and music’. We are so lucky to have been allowed a window on the life, love and home of Seamus Heaney.