On the day Seamus Heaney died, I went to the library to find a volume of his poems, of which they had none. So then I went to the used bookstore down the street and joyfully found his collection, Seeing Things.
I think it’s the first poem of that collection in which he writes, “A 9 to 5 man, who knows poetry.” Now I did not yet understand that poem but I was a 9 – 5 man struggling as a banker and poetry was a way of grasping at beauty in a world in which only numbers and profit ruled. Since then I have learned the line may be a sly criticism of a particular person. But no matter.
Heaney’s poetry has always had this ancient and modern sound in my ears. Ancient, probably because he grew up outside of Belfast on a farm that was in his own words, “medieval.” But Modern, because his poetry became popular in a world of modern machines and modern ideas about the world.
He is intensely likable. I have listened to every podcast multiple times in which he is featured. And one of my favorite books, Stepping Stones, is just one long interview and that kindness is on every page.
One of things I like about his poetry is the lack of cleverness. Now, I like a clever poem. But his are never that. They shoot straight, even the ones that take a few readings to get your head around.
Poetry is always slightly mysterious, and you wonder what is your relationship to it. – Seamus Heaney
He is from Belfast. So you must expect a beautiful sadness behind whatever he writes. Below is my favorite poem of his. I do not have a lot of complete poems memorized, but this one I have and will keep. It is one of the poems that hung like a beacon in my last cubicle at my last job at the bank.
Requiem for the Croppies
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.
I can remember the joy of driving into work on my first day as a teacher after leaving the bank. Little did I know I would be working with people who knew the work of Seamus Heaney and prized it. They also knew the work of Mozart and could discuss it. This would be a new and beautiful world. A world I miss.
This Morning I Did Not Clock In.
I listened to the Clarinet Concerto
and drove under cobalt blue skies.
I also thought about Seamus Heaney
and those lines,
“Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.”
By then the duet of Susanna and Constance
in that scene when Andy
locks all the doors
and turns on the intercom
and they can all hear the beauty
taking over the morning.
During all this,
my desk sat empty.
I guessed all my poems
were taken down from
those short dead gray
walls, never read,
and thrown away.
But the sky hung blue
and I could only listen
with all the joy I knew.
Also, I did not clock in.