Driving home from work on Friday I heard the sad news that Seamus Heaney had died. It was odd to feel such emotion about the death of someone whom I have never met and my attempts to explain my reaction to my daughters, and how he was such a great Irish poet, met with bewildered glances and barely concealed 'she's really lost the plot' glances between them.
My first introduction to Heaney, like many, was in the classroom but not as a pupil. The poems I studied in school were stolid traditional dirges that I was required to recite and so as a newly qualified English teacher, fresh from my PGCE, I was not altogether thrilled at the prospect of trying to engage teenagers in what the exam boards might deem as educational. I was handed a dreaded anthology and set to reading, hoping to find something that would appeal or at the very least was short. To my surprise I spent the next two hours riveted as I turned each page of rich and expressive language. I think it was Coleridge who described poetry as, 'the best words in the best order' which I've always thought of as a good definition but it isn't adequate for Heaney. He made ordinary words wonderful and crafted his own order.
Born in 1939 in what has been described as 'a remote corner of a remote part' of Northern Ireland, Heaney was the eldest of nine children. His father was a farmer and cattle dealer, not the background you might expect for someone destined to such academic heights. But it is that rural childhood that comes through so many of his poems and the physical descriptions that make them so evocative. I needn't have worried about engaging reluctant boys in poetry when he described the frogs in Death of a Naturalist as 'great slime kings' and gave me lines like, 'Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting'!
Described by many as a 'humble and modest man' his reaction to winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 was typical; he described the experience as 'being caught up in a mostly benign avalanche'. Glancing through the tributes and obituaries this weekend, the superlatives are many. Poet, Don Paterson, said his death 'leaves breach in language itself' while Liam Neeson said Ireland 'has lost part of its soul'. Many of his poems addressed 'the troubles' and the theme of conflict but he sought to put them into a wider historical context and in so doing became a voice for resolution and a reminder to pay heed to conscience. I liked Bill Clinton's words best - "his uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace".
I'll leave you with a recording of Heaney reading one of my favourites - 'Digging' :