Culture At Large

A Found Poem by Seamus Heaney

Cathleen Falsani

One of my favorite stories is about the interview I wanted most, but didn’t get.

It was 2005 and I had just signed a contract to write what would be my first book - a collection of profiles of mostly well-known people about their spiritual lives. Artists. Writers. Thinkers. Scientists. The odd rock star. Sitting in my publisher’s office, she asked me to dream out loud. If I could interview anyone for the project, who would be first on my wish list? I answered without hesitation: Seamus Heaney.

To say that I was a fan of the Irish poet and Nobel laureate is an understatement of epic proportions. My love of Heaney’s words runs deep, like a vena cava that ferries lifeblood to my soul’s imagination. My husband and I literally (and literarily) fell in love by reading Heaney’s poetry aloud to one another. A verse from his “Station Island,” the one that ends, “And my heart flushed, like somebody set free,” graced our wedding invitation.

Heaney’s poetry is earthy and true, whether he’s describing a bog, a body or something far more ethereal. His poetry was without piety but never profane. While his words elevate hearts and minds, his feet ever were planted in the peat and sod of his beloved Ireland.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, Heaney and I shared a publishing house, so I was able to reach out to him directly. I wrote a breathless, achingly earnest letter requesting an interview. Anywhere. Any time.

A few days later, Heaney responded via a two-page fax from Dublin. He began by thanking me and then apologized. I’m sorry, he said with a gentleness that managed to waft from even the faxed page. Spirituality was the one part of his life about which he felt he was “woefully inarticulate.”

My dream was dead. Or was it?

His dispatch declining an interview had a second page. There I found the most extraordinarily generous and gracious of consolation prizes: a poem.

Here, Heaney said. Perhaps you can use it in some small fashion in your book. He titled it, “A Found Poem.”

In its few words, Heaney told me a lifetime about his spirituality and beliefs, history and hopes. But it was the act of his offering me the precious poem that said even more about the size of his heart and the condition of his soul.

I wept for hours when I learned of Heaney’s death on Aug. 30 after a brief illness at a hospital in Dublin. I never knew him personally, but the man had given me so much - and not just in that one act of profound kindness to a novice writer he’d never met.

According to Heaney’s son Michael, his father’s last words - sent via text message from his hospital bed to his wife of nearly 50 years, Marie - said, in part, “nolle timere” (Latin for “don’t be afraid”). Perhaps he wanted to reassure her that they would be reunited. Perhaps at the festival of friends on the other side, where there is a forever of found poems and eternal embraces.

A Found Poem

Like everybody else, I bowed my head

during the consecration of the bread and wine,

lifted my eyes to the raised host and raised chalice,

believed (whatever it means) that a change occurred.

I went to the altar rails and received the mystery

on my tongue, returned to my place, shut my eyes fast, made

an act of thanksgiving, opened my eyes and felt

time starting up again.

There was never a scene

when I had it out with myself or with an other.

The loss of faith occurred off stage. Yet I cannot

disrespect words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘host’

or even ‘communion wafer.’ They have an undying

pallor and draw, like well water far down.

– Seamus Heaney (2005)

Heaney’s poetry is earthy and true, whether he’s describing a bog, a body or something far more ethereal.

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