“like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

Benfrey, C (2013),‘What Seamus Heaney taught me’, The New York Review of Books, 1 September


Seamus believed that much of the craft of writing could be taught. “I can help you with that part,” he told us. “The other part is up to you.” He was a calm, unassuming presence in class, not the “great poet” at all, cautiously offering suggestions in the mode of “what if?” Mostly what he suggested was what he called surgery. “This poem could use a little surgery,” he would say. “What if you cut the first stanza?” Or, “Isn’t that last line a bit grandiloquent for the occasion? Perhaps you could do without it.”

For help with the “other part,” the un-teachable part, he recommended a book called something like The Poet’s Work, but the only time I heard him refer to it was to summon Lorca’s notion of duende, a mysterious dark fire of inspiration, a demonic rage, which, as I remember, Lorca associated with bullfighting and flamenco. When Seamus heard that I was working on Emily Dickinson he said, “Well, she had duende, didn’t she?”

He didn’t try to turn his students into copies of himself. He rarely mentioned his own poems. Instead, he tried to find poets further along the path that the student seemed to be following. One day, I brought in a poem about a couple skipping stones on a cow-pond. I remember only one line: “Mine skipped three times and burrowed in.” It wasn’t the deliberate cows (the adjective comes back) or the pond that interested him, even though his own poems are full of such pastoral props. It was the notion of divination, of trying to guess the future by how the stones struck the water. “You might look at Robert Graves’s ‘The Straw,’” he murmured, which begins:

Peace, the wild valley streaked with torrents,
A hoopoe perched on his warm rock. Then why
This tremor of the straw between my fingers?

Looking at that tercet now, I suddenly remember Heaney’s most famous lines, from “Digging”: “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests.” The pen as divining rod.

He seemed always older, wiser—the Master, as we called him. My first thought when I heard the news of his passing was, “Only seventy-four! My God, he was one of us!”