I WAS MIDWAY in a letter to Seamus Heaney when I learned that he had died. I was writing to invite him to the launch of a new book, a sonnet sequence based on the life of the 19th century mathematician and poet, William Rowan Hamilton. I was aware that it was one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of letters that pled for Seamus’s presence, an endorsement of this or that event. I had some hopes of a ‘yes’ for he had come to a related event of mine the previous year. This was a seminar called “Science Meets Poetry”, part of the European Science Open Forum, the centrepiece of Dublin City of Science 2012. Seamus had contributed to the seminar discussion and had read his poem ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (see Marco’s piece, a few pages ahead). I had talked about the Two Williams, Hamilton and Wordsworth, and when I had finished, I was cheered by Seamus’s “Bravo!” from the front row.
My first contact with Seamus was in 1997, when I was, in his phrase, “newly cubbed in language”. I wanted to obtain a Visiting Fellowship in Physics and Poetry at Magdalen College, Oxford. Mutual friends had advised that my chances would greatly increase if Seamus, an Honorary Fellow of the college, would provide a reference. Although we had not met, Seamus obliged; he also added some generous comments on the poems I had enclosed with that first letter to him; the last will have to be sent in a different way.
Seamus had been billed to give the opening address of the “On Home Ground” poetry festival, part of the Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013 celebrations. After his untimely death the organisers converted this event into a tribute, in which a dozen or so Irish poets read their favourite Heaney poem. I chose to read ‘The Haw Lantern’, the title poem of his seventh collection published in 1987. This beautiful sonnet begins memorably –
The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people
– but the small light then morphs into the classical image of the lantern of Diogenes, who is seeking one just man. It is a poem about being tested and Seamus was himself tested and not found wanting. I was pleased to find that this is the Heaney poem on the official website of the Nobel Prize (http://www.nobelprize.org). It seems so appropriate given Seamus’s complete lack of hubris, his dignified bearing of the heavy load of fame.
The organisers had also asked for a second choice, to avoid possible duplication. I had nominated ‘Fosterage’, the penultimate poem in the sequence ‘Singing School’ from the collection North (1975). This poem is the bridge between four hard-hitting pieces (‘The Ministry of Fear’, ‘A Constable Calls’, ‘Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966’ and ‘Summer, 1969’) about his (and my) sectarian home place and the more contemplative poem ‘Exposure’, his magnificent hymn to his refuge south of the border. ‘Fosterage’ recounts a meeting with his mentor (and former employer) the teacher and writer, Michael McLaverty. Seamus is offered the timeless advice “Don’t have the veins bulging in your Biro” before being sent out “with words / Imposing on my tongue like obols”. It is also the source of the phrase “newly cubbed in language”.
Which brings me back to the beginning. An act of kindness and the start of an unequal friendship. Where we might have found the balance, a chance to centre the bubble in the spirit level, was in the swapping of jokes. And I was all set to sweeten the latest request with such, one that I was sure he would have loved. So I put that in the poem, as well.
To Seamus Heaney in Heaven
When word came I was midway
in a letter to yourself…
“What’s he after now?” you ask.
I had begun like Kavanagh’s swan,
“head low with many apologies”,
As Hamilton once wrote to Wordsworth
And keeping to the last
The joke I knew you would enjoy,
The one about the Greek tailor:
But you were already beyant, like Gunnar
Sharing poems with The Greats
Miłosz, Brodsky, Lowell, Auden, Yeats.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Iggy McGovern was born in Coleraine and lives in Dublin, where he was Professor of Physics at Trinity College until retiring recently. He has published three collections of poetry, The King of Suburbia (Dedalus Press 2005), Safe House (Dedalus Press 2010) and the new sonnet sequence A Mystic Dream of 4, based on the life of the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton (Quaternia Press, autumn 2013). Awards include the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry and the Glen Dimplex New Writers Award for Poetry. Iggy edited the anthology 2012: Twenty Irish Poets Respond to Science in Twelve Lines.