Seamus Heaney’s Passing

While an undergraduate in UC Berkeley’s English Department, I had the privilege of studying poetry writing with Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, who just passed away this week. (The talent in Berkeley’s English Department in the 1970s was staggering, and I was lucky enough to be there mid-decade.)

Probably the last giant of Irish poetry (and if you haven’t read Seamus Heaney, you should), nobody cared more about precision in language, and if I’m a decent writer, it’s due in part to Seamus’s tutelage and guidance for a semester.

I’ll always cherish the memory of his inviting our senior poetry class to his rented house in the Berkeley hills for a Sunday afternoon party; it was indicative of his generosity of spirit and time. Though an Irishman through and through, he clearly enjoyed his Berkeley stint (Or stints; this SF Gate blog post reports his stay as 1970-71, but I studied with him more than half a decade later. Either he was at Berkeley twice, or the dates being reported are in error.).

In the course of his writing career, he literally drew a line from Ovid to the author of Beowulf to his own poetry, and — aside from that cockiness (which he could justify) — when you slot yourself in a 2000-year-old continuum of creative struggle and mythic storytelling, it means you definitely approach your work with seriousness and gravity.

And if some of that got passed along to the students who studied with him, then that only further enhances the legacy he leaves…