I was a strange child.
Aged about six, I lifted a small book from my Dad's bookshelves. I wondered if he might read it to me. 'But I think it might be a scary murder story...'
I was precociously curious, but it wasn't a 'scary murder story' at all. It was Death of a Naturalist and, my Dad explained, contained poems, 'mostly about frogs'. It was about nature, he explained, and had been written by someone he'd known at school. I leafed through it, puzzled - my mind, attuned to Paddington Bear, struggling to make sense of what I found.
Years later, at secondary school, I discovered the poems properly. Looking at the blue-black inkblots from my Parker 25, I pondered 'digging' with a pen. I tried to write - if someone from a County Derry farm could write things that people wanted to read, then maybe so could I. In sixth form, what seemed impossible, happened: I got to meet the poet. Going to Queen's University to hear Seamus Heaney reading from his newest book, and meeting him, and having my copies of his collections autographed: it felt as though one of my artistic idols, like Shakespeare, or Mozart, or John Donne, had come to life. That he remembered my Dad, and chatted to us in a friendly way, left me speechless...
But later I found words. I was two terms into university; Seamus Heaney was up for election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. My tutor asked me to write an essay arguing why he should or should not be elected, which she would share with colleagues. Pressure indeed... Seeing him in Oxford, a year later, seemed quite surreal. In his poem, The Ministry of Fear, Heaney wrote of how his:
'... hob-nailed boots from beyond the mountain
Were walking, by God, over the fine
Lawns of elocution.'
Striding into his first Oxford lecture, in Dr Martens boots, a green tweed suit, his white hair unruly and his eyes twinkling above his glasses, Seamus Heaney seemed almost at odds with the formal lines of gown-clad academics and exhausted-looking students. And yet, through that lecture and others I attended, he commanded a spellbound silence - the soft, County Derry accent at odds with Oxonian RP, but his words seeming all the more authentic and unforgettable for sounding different.
In my final year, I took a terrifying chance. Ever generous to students and young writers, Seamus Heaney offered to meet students for half-hour one-to-one tutorials, discussing poetry and the craft of how to write. I cringe, unbearably, when I recall the shameful juvenilia I brought along... but I'll never forget the encounter, my accent and my Dad's name feeling like secret passwords, passed; the gentleness with which he made suggestions, the complicit laugh we shared when I said I knew my writing wasn't good, but that I'd simply had to grasp the opportunity to meet. He told me about Elizabeth Bishop and Basho - told me I'd love them. And I do.
And before long, I was digging into Heaney's poems in a classroom of my own. Junior students, blinking away tears at Mid Term Break. The fifth form boy who sniggered when he misread a title as Death of a Naturist. The girl who irreverently satirised the bog poems as a raunchy love story. The sixth form class who loved his poems so much that we sent him a fuzzy felt farmyard birthday card from us all, with messages from each of them and me... little thinking that he would write back, touched by the gesture, wishing us success and happiness. It seems so fitting that the news of Heaney's death was broken by someone from that former sixth form class: he'd heard at work, and simply had to let me know. And in turn I passed the message to my Dad, and heard the cadence of disbelief, then sadness, in his voice.
Knowing that Seamus Heaney will be buried alongside his parents, his brother and sister, each immortalised in his poems, in a tree-shadowed churchyard near where his life began, is impossibly sad and immeasurably perfect. Knowing that I will teach his poems, at first with sadness, to more generations of teenagers, as a new school year begins, is heart-breaking and heartening at once. Knowing the poems, whether 'mostly about frogs' or so much more, throughout my life, makes it feel as though I've lost a relative. Great, beloved writers are like that. They dig into your soul. They pervade your mind. They scan your thoughts and put them into words. You find words in what they've written when your own words fail. As he wrote in Personal Helicon, Seamus Heaney 'set the darkness echoing.'
The darkness Seamus Heaney leaves behind is a postscript rich in memory and words.