Death of a Poet

by Chris McDonnell

Not many live lives that, in their passing, are so noticed and admired as that of Seamus Heaney, who died last week. And even fewer poets are afforded that spontaneous recognition, but then Heaney wasn’t just some passing wordsmith. The greatness of his poetry was recognised internationally and he was rewarded with the Nobel prize in 1995, acclaimed as Ireland’s finest poet since Yeats.

He was, first and foremost, an Irishman from Derry and his background and inculturation came from the countryside where he grew up. A Northern Irishman, a Catholic and a Nationalist, he later moved to the South and spent much of his life living in the same house in Dublin. Copious words have been written about his poetry and academic life over the years. It is not my intention to make a poor effort at replicating that story. Rather, I would like to reflect on the personal impression he made on me and I am sure, countless others.

His poetry was never religious in that pious sense, but his writing was always deeply spiritual. He was concerned with many issues, not least being the Troubles in the North during the 70s and 80s and although they figure in his work, he was never an apologist for either side. But he did write of the pain that arose from conflict. His poem, “Two Lorries,” contrasts Agnew, the coal delivery man, ‘sweet-talking’ Heaney’s mother about going to a film in Magherafelt, a country-side conversation with a man off-loading coal, with a different lorry  years on that would blow a bus station to bits. A poignant, pointed story of the ordinary day to day life in the North during those difficult times. The poem appears in the collection The Spirit Level. (1996)

He was a man, much in demand, who had time for people, time for the passing word, the autograph or the card to someone who had written to him without introduction. I was fortunate enough to receive one such card, with a few words of encouragement some four years ago.

Poetry is the use of language in a cared-for way, the story told through words and lines shaped and formed with a deliberate, spare intent. As such, poetry can be a time of prayer, for it leads us to a place apart where we can listen to the voice of the Lord through the gift of words that the poet uses.  What a pity that a man of Seamus Heaney’s quality was not asked to help with the recent translation of the Mass. I am quite sure we would not have had the clunky text that it has been our lot to receive. His sensitivity would have given us a prayerful text.

There has to be poetry in our prayer, for it opens to us a whole new realm of experience, not just of our forming words with which we offer prayer, but of our being exposed to thought-provoking language that quietens us and makes us listen. Silence is the space between words

Heaney’s voice through his written and spoken word has been concluded yet the resonance from his life’s work is far from lost. We are fortunate to have shared a time of passage with a great man. The last poem in his final collection, Human Chain, is called “A kite for Aibhin”. It concludes with this line:

‘The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall’ .

May he rest in peace.


Two Lorries – by Seamus Heaney

It’s raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.
There are tyre-marks in the yard, Agnew’s old lorry
Has all its cribs down and Agnew the coalman
With his Belfast accent’s sweet-talking my mother.
Would she ever go to a film in Magherafelt?
But it’s raining and he still has half the load

To deliver farther on. This time the lode
Our coal came from was silk-black, so the ashes
Will be the silkiest white. The Magherafelt
(Via Toomebridge) bus goes by. The half-stripped lorry
With its emptied, folded coal-bags moves my mother:
The tasty ways of a leather-aproned coalman!

And films no less! The conceit of a coalman…
She goes back in and gets out the black lead
And emery paper, this nineteen-forties mother,
All business round her stove, half-wiping ashes
With a backhand from her cheek as the bolted lorry
Gets revved and turned and heads for Magherafelt

And the last delivery. Oh, Magherafelt!
Oh, dream of red plush and a city coalman
As time fast forwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes…
After that happened, I’d a vision of my mother,

A revenant on the bench where I would meet her
In that cold-floored waiting room in Magherafelt,
Her shopping bags full up with shovelled ashes.
Death walked out past her like a dust-faced coalman
Refolding body-bags, plying his load
Empty upon empty, in a flurry

Of motes and engine-revs, but which lorry
Was it now? Young Agnew’s or that other,
Heavier, deadlier one, set to explode
In a time beyond her time in Magherafelt…
So tally bags and sweet-talk darkness, coalman,
Listen to the rain spit in new ashes

As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt,
Then reappear from your lorry as my mother’s
Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes


Chris McDonnell is a regular reader and commenter at Pray Tell Blog.


  1. Chris,

    I seem to recall that he was invited to work on an earlier version of the Missal and declined. But I don’t know the details.

    Naturally, he wouldn’t have been asked for this round. All that was wanted was fidelity to the Latin. Can you imagine what would have been the effect of having someone of his caliber on the project this time? Total combustion.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #2:
      Actually, I don’t see how that fidelity to the Latin, and a work of art by someone of Heaney’s caliber are mutually exclusive categories. Do you really believe that they are? If Cranmer could do it, cetainly Heaney could. I’ve heard that quite some time ago Tolkein was asked but declined. We are undoubtedly the poorer for it. Still, as is well known, I much prefer a clunky semblance to a paraphrase emptied of substance.

      Believe it or not, I do not mean to be argumentative – I would be fascinated to behold someone like Heaney’s or Tolkein’s transformation of Latin substance into a work of sacred English linguistic art. Why, it might be even better than the BCP! It’s a scandal that ‘they’ never ask the right people to do these things!

      1. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #5:
        Dear M Jackson,

        Perhaps they are not mutually exclusive, but there is the question of priorities. When even the syntax of Latin is privileged over that of the receptor language, I think most English poets would check out at that point.

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