I dont know where to start, or how to say how much I owe this man. I have celebrated his verse extensively in my book Faith Hope and Poetry which concludes with a chapter setting out the way in which his poetry redresses a lost balance in our culture and enables a new vision of truth through the lens of imagination, but that was public academic discourse, just briefly today I want to be entirely personal.
I heard the news of his death at lunchtime today as I stood in a queue for coffee in a Cambridge Cafe, and found by the time I got to the front of the queue that I was blinded with tears. I thought he would live on to a long rich old age like his friend and fellow visionary Czeslaw Milosz, I looked forward to a rich harvest of that Late Ripeness he so praised in his friend Brian Friel, I didn’t know as I stood in line, shocked, that it would feel like such a personal bereavement.
But I should have known. I began to read his poetry in 1974 when I was 17, a year of recovery from darkness, and a year self discovery for me, his words ‘I rhyme/ to see myself, to set the darkness echoing’ had become part of my own call as a poet, those phrases from ‘Exposure’: ‘grown long-haired and thoughtful’ and ‘feeling every wind that blows’ helped me understand who I was called to be. And from that day to this each new book has been taken deep down inside and formed part of the texture of my being, part of the music of what happens, the music I never would have known to listen for.
I heard him read in Cambridge many times, and in 1996 a reading of his poem ‘The Rainstick’ produced a sudden epiphany in me which crystallised what I had begun to feel about faith and poetry, about the relationship between theology and the arts, and slowly, in the midst of pressing parish life, I began to wonder if I could write something. Then in 2002 came a life-changing encounter. A friend had been asked to interview him for the Shropshire Star on the occasion of his being awarded the Wilfred Owen Memorial prize and asked if I would come over to Shrewsbury and give her a crash course in Heaney! I obliged, but when it came to it she asked if I would step into the breach and do the interview. We got to the hotel early and were sitting in the deserted bar when the man himself arrived, also early, and came over to join us. soon the interview, which was full of his rich phrasing and deep appreciation of Wilfred Owen, was lost in a wider, longer, deeper conversation about poetry itself, about the heart of things, about Dante, which really kindled him, as he saw it kindled me, and then, amazingly, he turned the conversation back on me. He became the questioner, wanted to know how poetry fitted with my vocation as priest, probed me about my deepest things, and I found myself opening things I scarcely admitted were there; the longing to spread wings, the desire to take the gospel, as I understood it, outside the confines of the church and religious language, the urge to write, to take risks, but could I? should I? how free was I really? After we’d wrapped things up, and there had been the dinner and the prize-giving and his speech, he took up my copy of ‘Opened Ground’ and signed it, but it wasn’t until I got home that I saw what he had written:
‘To Malcolm, with high regard: “Walk on air against your better judgement” Seamus Heaney’
It was a moment of confirmation and release into a new understanding of my vocation, and a new daring. That phrase he quoted (from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech) has become a kind of watchword, and the unexpected spacewalk of this parish priest, the books, the songs, the poems, all owe something to a gift of wings that day.
One consequence of my walking on air was that I somehow ended up helping to start and continue the TS Eliot Festival in Little Gidding and in 2002 Heaney came, not only to read Eliot’s poem aloud for us but also, to my intense delight, to read the gospel for me and when I preached on the text ‘ Why this is the very gate of heaven’ he embraced me afterwards and said, ‘Malcolm, that wasn’t just a sermon, it was an Action’. again a kind of confirmation. And I’m sure my story here is just one example amongst countless of his extraordinary humility, his keen ear, his discernment, his attention to others, the way he wore his fame and distinction so lightly, the way he homed in on and cared for always and only the particular and little spark, the kernel of truth in front of him.
In his poem ‘At The Wellhead’ he encourages a singer, saying ‘Sing yourself to where he singing comes from’. Now this great soul, the greatest singer of our age, has come home to where the singing comes from.