At a literary fest in England’s Lake District circa 1977, I first fell under the spell of Seamus Heaney’s brogue, and his carnal yet deeply moral music snapped me awake. “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” The assonance of thumb and snug and gun makes an uh uh uh noise–a grunting, incantatory, almost aboriginal longing toward speech. Yet Heaney’s lines are elegant as Yeats’, with their own potent charm–from the Latin carmen, to sing.
Heaney, who was 74 when he died on Aug. 30, never lost his humility even after he was Nobelled and anointed by Harvard as Boylston Professor. Slipping into a poetry reading once in Cambridge, faintly redolent with whiskey, he whispered over, “Apologies, I’m slightly fragrant.”
Heaney was sometimes scolded for not being violent enough in his Irish politics, yet most praised his clear-eyed balance. As with Chekhov, it seemed enough for him to describe a problem accurately. His enterprise was more to honor than to judge. Our world is less rich without him on this side of the grass.
Karr’s most recent books are Lit: A Memoir and Sinners Welcome, a volume of poetry
This text originally appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of TIME magazine.
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