By Allie Leach
I was lucky enough to see and hear Seamus Heaney read before he died. Last March, at AWP in Boston, he was a keynote speaker, alongside fellow Nobel Prize-winner, Derek Walcott. I remember how witty they both were. I remember being astounded by their wisdom. I remember thinking: These two men are living legends.
Heaney was, of course, charming. Blame it on his Irish, sing-songy brogue; blame it on his happy eyes; blame it on that generous, hearty laugh. But when I think of Seamus Heaney, I think of a lullaby. After listening to the conversation and reading, I said to a friend, "I want Seamus Heaney to read me some bed time stories tonight." How lucky were his children to get lulled to sleep by that soothing voice.
This morning, after I found out that Heaney had passed, I looked up his reading on the Poetry Center's Voca archives. Heaney came to the Poetry Center on March 30, 1976, just two years after my parents graduated from high school. In the picture that was taken of him—outside of the old Poetry Center cottage—he has a curly, 70's-looking mess of thick hair. He looks sharp in dark clothing (such a poet!). He wears a dark button-up long-sleeved shirt, a dark blazer, dark pants, and a dark belt. And yet his expression is anything but dark; he has those same happy eyes.
In the 1976 reading, he reads a whopping 18 poems. Such prolificity! One of the poems that stands out the most to me is "Follower." He prefaces the poem with this:
"I believe it was Auden who said that a writer had to ask herself two questions. Number one: 'Who am I?' Simple enough, I suppose. And number two: 'Who do I want to become?' More difficult. These poems are answering in a very obvious, form-filling way, 'Who am I?'" You can read this poem here, and follow along by listening to this poem on Voca here.
In "Follower," we're situated—like many of Heaney's poems—on a farm. Our narrator tells a story of his father, who "worked with a horse-plough...the horse strained at his clicking tongue." The father, a hard working farmer, is "an expert...at the headrig, with a single pluck of reins, the sweating team turned round and back into the land." The father had tremendous skill, was so amazing at his work, that "his eye narrowed and angled at the ground, mapping the furrow exactly."
The son (who we might believe to be Heaney), on the other hand, is quite the opposite, (but lovingly so). "I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake, fell sometimes on the polished sod." Where the father is the older, wiser master, the son is clumsy. "I was a nuisance, tripping, falling, yapping always," and yet this son does yearn to be like his father. "I wanted to grow up and plough, to close one eye, stiffen my arm. All I ever did was follow in his broad shadow round the farm."
The poem ends with a shift, taking us from this nostalgic memory and into the present. "But today it is my father who keeps stumbling behind me, and will not go away." I love the turn here. It tugs at my heart, shows that whole parent-child role reversal, circle of life. This final image reminds me a bit of other stories and songs that I grew up listening to and loving; stories and songs that my Dad read to me like lullabies (I'm thinking here of Robert Munsch's Love You Forever and Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle").
I sit back, listening to Heaney's poem on this cloudy morning, this dark morning, and I'm lulled. I'm comforted. My eyes are happy.