Seamus Heaney taught me in my freshman year of college that the verb “perfect” means nothing more than to “make through.” Perfection? To follow something to its end. Finishing your work, but not before it’s done.
That lesson suited him beautifully. It was my introduction to the thought that etymology is metaphysics for the learned layman, a dust-obscured map of the real relations of things. A risky conceit, for sure, but this was the man who wrote of “stone/ That connived with the chisel, as if the grain/Remembered what the mallet tapped to know.” A mystical faith in your materials, the belief that they would find their form: his writing pulsed with that.
He often wrote as if he felt language in his hand like stone. Held in the right way, it would come to rest – an angle of repose. Tapped, it would reveal a hidden shape. Words, like stone, were definite: shaped, capable of the tightest fit and the most vertiginous, unlikely balance; but only if stone were also alive like words, lit from within by the impulse of those who took them in hand.
Living stone is soil. No wonder he could write of stanzas as the plough’s turning (“vowels ploughed into other, opened ground”), or of “the first hill in the world,” Anahorish, “soft gradient/of consonant, vowel-meadow.”
I didn’t realize until after his death how many ways he had affected me. He was the first poet I read intentionally, outside school. He was also the first that I discovered with a girlfriend, my first serious girlfriend. Remember how, to say it delicately, the world suddenly flows with sensuality, as if hundreds of springs and streams had opened from parched slopes? Whispering and breathing when you wake with someone else for the first time since childhood, or the first time ever? Soft gradient of consonant: his intimations that word, breath, flesh, soil, all tended to become one another were the chords of a new experience. Though I’ve calmed down, lines of certain poems for me remain shared tokens of friendship, like matching rings.
Then he was the first writer, met as words on a page, who then became another fleshy person – in his case, a teacher. As a student in his poetry workshop, I suited him middlingly: I tried to walk my American slopes with the specificity that he achieved in Anahorish, but I was less playful than he is. He felt nothing from words like scree, and he made fun of peepers, the young frogs whose discordant music is the soundscape of Appalachian spring nights. In his final note to me, he saluted my seriousness and effort, and said some of my poems were better than others.
But his presence, by itself, showed me that books are made by makers – the word he sometimes used for poets – who walk and twinkle, drink in the daytime and sometimes misunderstand a most earnest use of idiom. Growing up in a family that loved books, but far from anyone who might write one, I found this revelatory. No doubt it started me on trying the dark art for myself, making things with words, flawed or not. He would have seen the same defects in most of what I wrote afterward – the more ambitious, the more flawed in those ways – but what a gift, to know firsthand that one could do that work at all.
He was, for all his force, a person one could approach in idle ways. He was open to catching something tossed his way, eying its glint, and throwing it back. I learned once that his named chair entitled him to graze one cow in Harvard Yard and, thinking of our beef cattle at home, stopped him on the paths one afternoon to request the loan of his grazing rights. He twinkled and said, without missing a beat, “Ye’ll have to become Boylston Professor of Rhetoric ye’rself, Jedediah.”
In the gusts of public remembrance that came with his death, I learned that he had once tied his poetry to a fear of silence, of the suffering that begins in things unsaid. That is not the experience of a glad, bearish, whiskey-sipping Celtic mystic. I suspect it is intimate acquaintance with the terror of a mute world that attunes a writer like him to “Words entering almost the sense of touch.” Almost, too: not quite, not like stone or soil. Just because they live, they are indefinite, uncertain, less easy to the perfection of following through.
His poems are full of terror made ordinary, whose crux is not a bombing in Ulster’s wars, but isolation. He meditated on a child confined in a hen-house, “gaping wordless proof/Of lunar distances/Travelled beyond love.” He asked, “How perilous is it to choose/Not to love the life we’re shown?” These cold distances, without and within, show the value of the warm, articulate world he conjured. They are, at least, an equal force in his work, and they are why he was never a poet of nostalgia, of easy pastoral. The presence of death and of unnecessary silence, death before death, made his landscape mysticism as much of a modernist redemption of experience as Joyce’s epic pastiche.
But, as he once urged writers, don’t be so earnest. It takes out the joy and surprise, and makes you less dangerous. Be light-headed, he said, and feel the need of writing like your hands reaching for a breast at night: a haven, an appetite, a straight-up pleasure.
I wasn’t prepared to learn that from him, as a hyper-earnest college freshman. But the models he gave of it were, like the poems’ ambition, directly embodied. They didn’t require any thinking at the time: just absorbing the presence of the man–the feel of him–to call it up much later.
We both read once at an event in Harvard’s Adams House, where for parts of two years we lived under the same big, many-gabled roof. I had written my poem under him, two years earlier. I introduced it with some twerpy undergraduate aside about how, back then – before his brush the Swedish Academy, I said – I was the big man and he just a stripling from Ulster. I’m embarrassed now that I thought that was funny. My most vivid image of Heaney is his rumbling with pleasure at the absurdity, filling me from across the room with his unfragile warmth.
His ear and voice are mostly beyond imitation, and it might be better not to try. There’s infinite space, though, to get a feel for his kind of perfection, and for the generous spirit that gave others room to grow in their own sense of things.
Jedediah Purdy: A Way With Rebar