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John Hollander obituary


American poet admired for his technical virtuosity

The American poet John Hollander, who has died aged 83, was a master of verse whose technical virtuosity and intellectual underpinnings were highly regarded, even as they stood in sharp contrast to the changing fashions of the poetry world. As Sterling professor emeritus of English at Yale University, he was hugely influential as a critic and teacher of remarkable rigour.

Hollander made his mark when his first collection, A Crackling of Thorns (1958), was chosen by WH Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series. Auden may have been recognising his own influence on Hollander's work; Hollander said he admired Auden's ability to improvise with literary modes and forms, especially "the relation between seriousness and play" in poetry.

Humour played an important part in Hollander's early work. He was born in New York, where his father was a physiologist and his mother a teacher. A precocious student, he wrote a column for the newspaper at Bronx high school of science in the style of the humorist SJ Perelman. "Someone should write an essay," he said, "on the importance of Perelman not only to comic but also to very serious writers."

He enrolled at Columbia University, where professors in the English department included the poet Mark van Doren, the critic Lionel Trilling and the cultural historian Jacques Barzun. His fellow students, many of them older and veterans of the second world war, included the poets and writers Louis Simpson, Daniel Hoffman, Richard Howard and Robert Gottlieb. But his biggest influence, "my poetic mentor" as Hollander described him, was his friend Allen Ginsberg. Though the two would move in almost opposite directions in their work, they shared a belief in what Hollander described as the "mythological weight" of poetic form. One of Hollander's best-known poems, Helicon, from his autobiographical collection Visions from the Ramble (1965), tells of how he and Ginsberg sold blood to a hospital for spending money.

After earning his BA in 1950, and MA two years later, Hollander began a doctorate at the University of Indiana, but left in 1954 to join the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He received his PhD from Indiana in 1959 and joined the faculty at Yale. His dissertation was published in 1961 as The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700. In 1966, he returned to New York to teach at Hunter College, then went back to Yale in 1977, where he taught for 25 years.

Hollander later described his early work as "epigram literature". Movie Going (1962) displayed a light touch, and the concrete poems of Types of Shape (1969) echoed the 17th-century work he loved. But The Night Mirror (1971) signalled a change. "I was writing in a line of wit and of essayistic speculation when I was young, still under Auden's influence," he explained in a 1985 interview with the Paris Review. "I began to write less discursively, more puzzlingly, I suppose less wittily."

He could still be playful. Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake (1976) was presented as coded messages between spies. He also explored his Jewish roots with the mystical prose poems of Spectral Emanations (1978), praised by the critic Harold Bloom for its "emotional complexity, spiritual anguish, and intellectual and moral power". Hollander would often be identified as a "high Romantic", which was reflected by the pride of place he gave in his house to a John Martin study for his painting Paradise Lost.

Hollander's Rhyme's Reason (1981) explored various verse forms in verses written in those forms, a sonnet explaining a sonnet and so on. His most potent exploration of pure form came in Powers of Thirteen (1983), which consisted of 169 (13 squared) stanzas of 13 lines each, each line containing 13 syllables. It won Yale's Bollingen poetry prize, but his next book was again something different. In Time and Place (1986) was an elegiac volume with echoes of Tennyson's In Memoriam.

Hollander published 20 collections of poetry; critics considered his last, A Draft of Light (2008), just as challenging as any that came before. He wrote seven critical works, edited a number more, including volumes on 19th-century American literature and the literature of Renaissance England for the Oxford Anthology of English Literature, and produced three books for children. An accomplished musician, who taught himself the lute while writing his dissertation, he wrote the text for Milton Babbitt's cantata Philomel (1963).

Hollander's first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Natalie, and two daughters, Martha and Elizabeth.

• John Hollander, poet, born 28 October 1929; died 17 August 2013

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An early Guardian interview with Seamus Heaney from the archive

Seamus Heaney: readers' tributes and reactions

Seamus Heaney reads from Human Chain – books podcast


Seamus Heaney, who has died aged 74, won the Forward prize for poetry in 2010 with his last collection, Human Chain. Here he reads a selection of poems from the collection at the Poetry Prom in Aldeburgh

Seamus Heaney obituary


Irish poet and Nobel laureate whose lines of love and loss took inspiration from his childhood in Derry

In 2009, as part of the extensive celebrations in Ireland for his 70th birthday, RTÉ broadcast a documentary about Seamus Heaney. Towards its close, Heaney, who has died aged 74, was asked whether anything in his work seemed appropriate to him as an epitaph. He demurred at first but, when gently prodded, quoted what he had translated from Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles when his friend the great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz died in 2004. Telling the story of the old king who dies and vanishes into the earth, the play's Messenger says, in Heaney's version: "Wherever that man went, he went gratefully." That, said Heaney, would do for him too.

The gratitude is not so much, surely, for the leaving of life, but for the work well done. Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006 and his volume Human Chain (2010) is painfully shadowed by ageing and mortality. But it is also deeply informed by a spirit of resilience and acceptance and, in the extraordinary love poem Chanson d'Aventure, which describes his ambulance drive to hospital with his wife, Marie, by the sense of renewal and new reward, even at a late stage, in human relationships.

Mortality and domestic relations, affection and obligation, had preoccupied Heaney throughout his work, and were frequently sounded together. One of his most popular poems, Mid-Term Break, from his collection Death of a Naturalist (1966), handles the death of his younger brother Christopher in a road accident in 1953, when Heaney was still a schoolboy; that loss is returned to again in the superb late poem The Blackbird of Glanmore, in District and Circle (2006), which is also concerned with intimations of the poet's own mortality.

The deaths of many in the Troubles feature in numerous Heaney poems, notably in North (1975), where, in the now famous sequence of "bog poems", they are brought into alignment with the iron-age bodies recovered from the bogs of Jutland, which Heaney had encountered in PV Glob's book The Bog People. In the collections Field Work (1979) and Station Island (1984), Heaney encounters ghosts. With these poems, and others, he became one of the great modern elegists.

But Heaney was also an excellent poet of familial love and, notably, of enduring married love. There are numerous poems of filial affection, for both mother and father, and wonderful poems for his children and, latterly, his granddaughter. One of his finest poems, Sunlight, in North, was written for his aunt Mary, who was partly responsible for his upbringing. Chanson d'Aventure marked a late stage in the marital relationship he had vividly portrayed for years after his marriage to Marie Devlin in 1965: from the difficulties evoked in Summer Home (in Wintering Out, 1972), a poem of regret and self-recrimination, through the stabilities, accommodations, supportiveness, sources of strength and erotic tenderness and arousal recorded in such poems as The Skunk and An Afterwards in Field Work (1979), and The Underground and La Toilette in Station Island.

Especially in its bleak treatment of the Troubles, Heaney's poetry is full of broken things, but it is also a poetry of the continuities that sustain us against mortality. His resourceful, disciplined equilibrium finds one of its best expressions at the end of A Kite for Michael and Christopher, in Station Island, when the poet-father hands the emblematic kite on to his sons:

Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand in here in front of me
and take the strain.

The way his work faces the worst but steadies itself against it, too, must be the greatest single reason for Heaney's huge readership. He presumably had his popularity in mind when he called himself, in Station Island, a "poet, lucky poet".

The eldest of nine children of Margaret (née McCann) and Patrick Heaney, a Catholic farmer and cattle dealer, he was born at Mossbawn farm near the village of Castledawson in County Derry. Seamus was an early beneficiary of the 1947 Northern Ireland Education Act, attending St Columb's college in Derry, where his contemporaries included the politician John Hume and the critic and academic Seamus Deane. He studied English language and literature at Queen's University Belfast, graduating with a first-class degree in 1961. He taught for a brief period in Belfast and joined the writers' workshop known as the Group initiated by the poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum, who taught at Queen's. After Hobsbaum left the university, Heaney was appointed to a lectureship in English in 1966 and he became chairman of the Group, whose other members included Michael Longley and Bernard MacLaverty. An important impetus to the burgeoning of poetry in the north, it would eventually also include the poets Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson.

In 1964 Karl Miller published three of Heaney's poems in the New Statesman, where they were noticed by the Northern Irish-born Charles Monteith, one of the directors of the publishers Faber and Faber. When he received Monteith's letter soliciting a manuscript, it was, Heaney said, "like getting a letter from God the Father". Two years later, Faber published Death of a Naturalist. It received exceptional acclaim, and Heaney almost immediately became a poet keenly watched, followed and imitated. By then, he had married Devlin, with whom he would have three children, Michael, Christopher and Catherine Ann.

Heaney took part in some of the first protest marches following the RUC assault on the civil rights march in Derry on 5 October 1968, and he contributed articles on the issue to the Listener.

The Heaneys spent an important year in the US, at the University of California at Berkeley, in 1970-71, and Heaney got to know the contemporary poetry of America's west coast. On their return, he resigned from his post at Queen's, became a freelance writer and moved with his family to the Republic of Ireland. They lived in a rented cottage in a relatively remote, beautiful part of County Wicklow, on what had once been a vast estate owned by the family of the playwright and poet JM Synge. The Glanmore cottage was to prove, both at that time and later, after the Heaneys bought it in 1988, not just a bolthole from a busy Dublin life – it had no telephone – but also a source of poetic power. It was the secluded site of a great deal of often nocturnal and, he once told me, almost trancelike, poetic composition. Glanmore Sonnets and Glanmore Revisited are the most obvious products of that place and state, and appropriate testimony to it.

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Inevitably, the move south by a significant Irish Catholic writer from the north was read as having emblematic import; and in Exposure, which appears at the end of North, Heaney figures himself as "a wood-kerne / Escaped from the massacre". He spent several years hosting a books programme on Irish radio and in 1975 took up teaching again, this time at Carysfort College, a Catholic teacher-training college in Dublin. Heaney bought a house in the city – "by a famous strand," he says in a poem: that is, Sandymount, along which Stephen Dedalus walks in an early episode of James Joyce's Ulysses.

In 1980 Heaney published Preoccupations, the first of several collections of critical essays. His literary criticism came to assume great authority. Heaney wrote in richly rewarding ways about Wordsworth, Yeats, Dante, Patrick Kavanagh, John Clare, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop.

Developing an international reputation, notably in America, Heaney initiated a long relationship with Harvard University, where he had a visiting professorship in 1979. He held the Boylston chair of rhetoric and oratory there (1985-97), teaching one semester a year, and he then continued the contact in a less formal capacity. He was professor of poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994 and the resulting lectures were collected as The Redress of Poetry in 1995. In that year he won the Nobel prize in literature. During his Nobel lecture, he dwelt at some length on the politics of Northern Ireland, condemning both "the atrocious nature of the IRA's campaign of bombings and killings" and "the ruthlessness of the British army on occasions like Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972". Heaney's other accolades over the years included the TS Eliot, Forward, David Cohen and (twice) Whitbread prizes. In 1996 he was made a commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2004 Queen's University opened its Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry.

There is no doubt Heaney took great delight in his success. He was an adept, even charismatic, performer before an audience – as a reader of his own poems in academic auditoriums, as a public lecturer, and as a radio and television broadcaster; and he certainly understood, from very early on, the mechanisms involved in the creation and maintenance of a successful public reputation. In a sometimes envious literary world this led to some cavilling, notably upon the 2008 publication of Stepping Stones in which Heaney, already a much-interviewed poet, discussed his life and career with his friend and fellow poet Dennis O'Driscoll.

The book was clearly intended as the alternative to an autobiography, and if Heaney's way with his readership was absolutely not Samuel Beckett's or even Heaney's friend Brian Friel's ways of withdrawal and silence, the book is, in the event, an exercise not in egotism or hubris but in self-questioning, self-definition, self-analysis, self-evaluation and, only finally, self-justification. As such, it suggests Heaney's conception of his role as a writer always included a strong element of the pedagogic. What he commended in the poet Marina Tsvetaeva– "the good force of creative mind at work in the light of conscience" – can be commended in him too.

When he wrote about Yeats in an early essay – one of many in which Heaney returns to the work of his great Irish poetic forebear – he used the word "exemplary" of that poet's demeanour at a particular point in his life, and Heaney's own life had the character of an experiment that was also available for scrutiny. For all the "luck" of the career, it was a life lived with a strong awareness of social and cultural responsibility. If the even-handedness of some of his explicit political remarks could seem almost diplomatic at times (politicians, including Bill Clinton, have been fond of quoting him), he was also, when the occasion demanded, a forceful articulator of an Irish political conscience before a primarily English audience. This was notably the case at a prizegiving in 1988, at which he chastised the English press for their reporting of Northern Ireland, and in the last of his Oxford lectures, Frontiers of Writing, in which he analysed his perturbed feelings when he stayed in a Tory cabinet minister's room in an Oxford college at the time of the IRA hunger strikes in 1981.

Heaney's major public commitment in Ireland was to the Field Day Theatre Company, of which, along with Friel and Stephen Rea, he became a director. Formed initially to stage contemporary plays outside the commercial theatre, Field Day developed, through various publications, into a controversial agency of agitation in Irish cultural politics. In 1983 it published Heaney's Sweeney Astray, a translation from the medieval Irish tale Buile Suibhne, and in 1990 it staged The Cure at Troy, his version of Philoctetes by Sophocles. Both make clear, if coded, reference to contemporary Irish political life. Heaney published a further dramatic translation, of Sophocles's Antigone, as The Burial at Thebes, in 2004, and it premiered at Dublin's Abbey theatre that year.

Translation was a major element of his later work: notably his outstandingly successful version, published in 1999, of the long Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and his version of a Horatian ode, Anything Can Happen, which commemorated the events of 9/11.

Given his eminence, Heaney was exceptionally approachable: gregarious, generous, courteous and convivial. He was a formidably, spontaneously eloquent man gifted with a wonderful verbal memory: he once recited the whole of one of Philip Larkin's less well-known poems to me, and another time several prose paragraphs from the philosopher EM Cioran. Nevertheless, his social manner was entirely relaxed and relaxing. He was a benignly mischievous raconteur and took great delight in telling, and hearing, jokes. He was very funny indeed, and to spend any time at all in his company was to laugh a great deal.

One of my happiest memories is of stopping off at a cinema in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght on the way to Wicklow with him to catch an afternoon showing of Robert Zemeckis's 2007 animated movie of Beowulf, which boldly attempts to sex up the text on which it is somewhat loosely based. The only other audience members were, weirdly, a party of ribald boy scouts. The various incongruities were striking, and hilarious.

Where he encountered envies, resentments and hostilities, Heaney appeared to handle them with equanimity and aplomb, even if the eventual dissolution of some old allegiances clearly caused distress. He was, though, a man of whom it could be said, as Yeats wanted it said of him, "his glory was he had such friends". These included international literary greats, such as Miłosz, Bishop, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott, but Heaney also had a great deal of time for younger writers, whom he encouraged and quietly promoted.

For all the strength of personality manifest in Heaney's life, it is of course to the poetry that we will return. This is always, as it were, a life altogether elsewhere; and the elsewhere in Heaney is characteristically the life of memory, and specifically the memory of his childhood place, the townlands of his origins whose Irish names – Anahorish, Broagh, Toome, Mossbawn, Bellaghy – are now such an indelible part of English-language poetry, as are their accents, rhythms and people. There is a real sense in which his poetry is permanent homesickness, as the place is returned to again and again, but always with a difference, until its topography becomes the register of an immensely complex psychological, emotional, cultural and political terrain; until the place has become, in fact, in the title of one of Heaney's collections of lectures, the "place of writing".

Crucial to the worldview of that place of origin was an earlier phase of Irish Catholicism, and although the religion itself had for Heaney long given way to the secularism characteristic of his literary generation, his categories of discrimination in writing as well as in ethics – almost, you might say, his categories of consciousness itself – continued always to carry a distinctively Catholic inflection. For all his later secularism, Heaney's imagination continued also to be suffused by images of an afterlife. This is figured most powerfully in his later work by allusions to and evocations of Virgil, and especially of the descent into the underworld in Book VI of the Aeneid, part of which Heaney translated in Seeing Things (1991), and which is conjured, absorbed and refracted in the sequence Route 110 in Human Chain.

In such places, the Aeneid seems to constitute a kind of displaced Catholicism, supplying a supportive mythology for a poet whose secularism continued to require such a thing. In the sequence Squarings, in Seeing Things, however, he finds an image all his own for an afterlife that is the almost miraculously continued life of a County Derry landscape:

At any rate, when light breaks over me
The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine
Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried
And silver lamé shivered on the Bann
Out in mid-channel between the painted poles
That day I'll be in step with what escaped me.

He is survived by Marie, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann, and his grandchildren.

• Seamus Justin Heaney, poet, born 13 April 1939; died 30 August 2013

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Doonreagan: Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill's escape to Ireland


He started work on his greatest verse cycle; she painted, wrote and danced. Laura Barnett reports on a new play trying to uncover the truth about the relationship between the poet and his married lover

Doonreagan House stands on the curve of Cashel Bay in Connemara, on Ireland's remote west coast. It is a handsome, whitewashed building, its wide front windows looking out over the Atlantic. Behind it, under a wide summer sky, looms a high outcrop of rock and peat, wild as the miles of mountain and moorland that separate the village of Cashel from the nearest town.

It was here, in February 1966, that Ted Hughes arrived with his married lover, Assia Wevill, and three children: Frieda and Nicholas, Hughes's children with Sylvia Plath, who had taken her own life in 1963; and Shura, his daughter with Wevill. It was a self-imposed exile – a chance for Hughes to write, and for he and Wevill to seek a level of domestic normality that had eluded them since they'd begun their affair four years before.

They would stay at Doonreagan for just a few months, but these would be some of their happiest together: Hughes began working on his acclaimed verse cycle Crow, while Wevill wrote and painted, and Frieda attended the village school. Decades later, Hughes would claim that his time in Ireland was one of the most productive periods of his writing life: not least because here, miles from London, he felt far from the corrosive gossip that had dogged him since Plath's death. Here, too, he and Wevill could live in privacy. Almost none of their friends and family knew she was here.

Now, their time at Doonreagan – or a version of it – is to be retold in a play written by the Swedish author, translator and playwright Ann Henning Jocelyn, which has its premiere next week at London's Jermyn Street theatre. It is a remarkable event for several reasons: because it sheds light on a period of Hughes's life about which, until recently, very little was known; and because Henning Jocelyn is, with her husband, Robert, the current owner of Doonreagan House. She has even shipped furniture to London for the set – including the desk, retained by Robert since he acquired the house in the late 1960s, shortly after Hughes and Wevill's departure – that Hughes may well have sat at to write.

Henning Jocelyn and her husband only discovered the Hughes connection in 2005, when they received some unexpected visitors. "We noticed this little hire car come up the drive," she tells me as we sit in the house's sunlit conservatory. "A couple came out and said they were writing a biography of an Israeli woman called Assia Wevill. They explained that she had been living here with Ted Hughes, and they had found the address of the house on letters written at the time. It was a complete surprise."

The couple in the car were Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, who published their groundbreaking biography of Wevill, A Lover of Unreason, in 2006. Intrigued, Henning Jocelyn began to delve deeper: she read everything she could about Hughes, Plath and Wevill, and interviewed the poet Richard Murphy and the painter Barrie Cooke, two of the few friends who had known both Hughes and Wevill were here; and Seamus Heaney, who also knew the couple. "Heaney said [Wevill] was very striking," she says. "She loved dancing, and she would challenge them a bit. The more I learned about Assia, the more I could identify with her. I had also been a young foreign lady in London – and it is not easy to have no family and no connections, and no friends to back you up."

At first, Henning Jocelyn was intending to turn her research into an academic lecture, aimed at Hughes scholars – but last year, with the characters still looming large in her mind, she decided to transform the material into a play. The result is a one-act piece, Doonreagan, in which we see Hughes and Wevill trying to establish a new intimacy while the shadow of Plath's death – and our own knowledge of the tragic fate awaiting Wevill and her daughter – looms large.

Some incidents are based on fact – Hughes's dreams about salmon and pike, which he recounted in his letters (and, obliquely, in his poetry); Wevill's own writing – she was an accomplished, if diffident, poet in her own right, and had abandoned a successful career as a copywriter for the move to Ireland.

But their conversations are the product of Henning Jocelyn's imagination. Her aim is to round out a picture of two people to whom so much negative rumour and supposition still cling – Hughes for the fact that two of the women closest to him committed suicide; Wevill for being a possible catalyst for Plath's death (Plath had found out about the affair a few months before she ended her life).

"People judge Ted," Henning Jocelyn explains, "based on what happened to him. There's a suggestion that the fate of these two women didn't really bother him at all – that he just said, 'Well, too bad, now where can I find my next girlfriend?' But I don't think it was like that at all. Hopefully the play will lead to a more nuanced understanding of him, and what he went through." Henning Jocelyn has been in contact with Hughes's daughter Frieda about the play, and says she has been encouraging about this approach.

Above all, though, Henning Jocelyn is intrigued by the fact that it was here, in this remote Irish house, that Hughes was able to reignite his creativity after some very dark years. She can understand how Doonreagan House came to have such a profound effect on him: she herself arrived in the summer of 1982 to write a book, and never left. "I had the sense," she says, "that I was coming home. Knowing that Hughes felt the same about this house has only reinforced it. Now, I'm even more aware of how lucky we are to be here."j

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Seamus Heaney's books were events in our lives


In a time of burnings and bombings Heaney used poetry to offer an alternative world; he gave example by his seriousness, his honesty, his thoughtfulness, his generosity

Two years ago I invited Seamus Heaney to read at the Kilkenny arts festival in Ireland. The venue was St Canice's Cathedral, one of the most beautiful churches in Ireland. It was here almost 40 years earlier that, as a young poet, he had met Robert Lowell, who had become a friend and a mentor. Heaney admired Lowell's utter dedication to his craft, his ability to change, his absolute belief in the importance of poetry. When I suggested that Dennis O'Driscoll, who had done a book of interviews with Heaney, should introduce him on stage, Seamus said he would like that, but he would prefer it if Dennis would read as well. Dennis, he said, had done enough introducing; since he was also a poet, he should get equal billing. It was typical of Seamus's generosity.

That evening, I suggested to him that he should do no signing of books after the reading, but go and have a drink with the theatre director Peter Brook, who was in Kilkenny and wanted to meet him. As we left by a side door and walked away from the church, he sighed and said that all his life after readings when everyone else was free to walk out into the world, he would spent an hour or more signing books and meeting people. He was the most tactful and careful and scrupulous of men. He used a deep-rooted conscientiousness in his work, but it also came across every time you met him. He had a way of holding back, watching every word, weighing the moment. In his public readings he had a real command; privately, he was almost shy, always thoughtful.

That summer's evening, I sensed that he was enjoying a sort of freedom which was apparent in his work after the volume Seeing Things in 1991. He played a seriousness and a responsibility against an urge to loosen his tone without slackening the care he took with every phrase; he felt easier about celebrating things, allowing the miraculous into his work and a sort of lightness into his cadences. At first he felt guilty about not staying behind to sign books and satisfy other people's needs, but then he smiled and walked with a casual stride, seeming to enjoy the dwindling summer light, the freedom, the prospect of good company.

He remained a northerner in the south of Ireland. Even though he lived in Wicklow and Dublin for 40 years, he was a citizen of south Derry and then of the world of poetry. What happened in the north weighed on him. In a time of burnings and bombings he used poetry to offer an alternative world; he gave example by his seriousness, his honesty, the tact in his phrasing, the care with language, the thoughtfulness, the scrupulousness.

He carried his fame lightly, easily. He preferred shadow to light; he preferred the half-said, careful, ambiguous remark to the big statement; he liked the slow smile rather than the easy laugh. He enjoyed company, but I always felt he had one eye on the door, and would be happy when the night was over and he could go home.

For his readers, his books were events in our lives, monuments. All of us remember reading the poems in North, say, for the first time in 1975, or reading the Glanmore sonnets which appeared in his book Field Work in 1979. He was not merely a central figure in the literary life of Ireland, but in its emotional life, in its dream life, in its real life. In his last book, Human Chain, published in 2010, he wrote about growing older and weaker with a shivering honesty and grace. It is hard to come to terms now with the idea that there will be no more such books.

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Seamus Heaney's death 'leaves breach in language itself'


Tributes flow in from fellow writers after poet who won Nobel prize for literature dies in Dublin aged 74

He was a snowy-haired, craggy mountain of a man; a man who radiated granite integrity and deep kindness. He was a poet, among the greatest of our era, and the first of his nation to win the Nobel prize since Yeats.

Seamus Heaney, who has died in hospital in Dublin, aged 74, leaves family, friends and readers in Ireland and beyond "feeling personally bereaved", in the words of his longtime friend, the poet Michael Longley. "Just as his presence filled a room, his marvellous poems filled the hearts of generations of readers."

Carol Ann Duffy, Britain's poet laureate, said that for his "brothers and sisters in poetry … he came to be the poet we all measured ourselves against and he demonstrated the true vocational nature of his art for every moment of his life. He is irreplaceable." For poet Don Paterson, "the death of this beloved man seems to have left a breach in the language itself".

Heaney, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1995, an experience he likened to "being caught up in a mostly benign avalanche", was born shortly before the start of the second world war into a farming family in Castledawson, County Derry.

His first collection of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, was published in 1966; numerous others followed, including North (1975), the Haw Lantern (1987) and his 12th and final collection, Human Chain (2010). He was marinated in the language and landscape of his native Derry, as well as in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, the Greeks and the Romans: his translation of Beowulf (2000) was especially highly acclaimed.

The defining fact of his poetry has been the complexities, tragedies and traumas of 20th-century Irish history. An Ulster-born Catholic who in the 1970s moved south to Wicklow and later Dublin (and who also spent many years teaching at Harvard), he resisted attempts to co-opt him, preferring to "tell all the truth but tell it slant", to borrow a line from Emily Dickinson.

His Nobel address manifested the poet's struggle in the face of intractable, bloody history. What "always will be to poetry's credit", he wrote, is "the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it".

The poet Paul Muldoon, as a 16-year-old, was encouraged in his writing by the 28-year-old Heaney, and later went on to study with him at Queen's University, Belfast. He said: "He managed in ways that are more or less unheard of to be a poet and a public figure, but one who was never involved in propaganda. He always tried to be true to whatever the moment might be. It was in many ways a difficult role: people looked to him almost as one might to the Delphic Oracle."

Frank McGuinness, the Irish playwright, said: "During the darkest days of the Northern Ireland conflict he was our conscience: a conscience that was accurate and precise in how it articulated what was happening.

"His poems are a brilliant record of what Ireland went through, and to produce it he must have gone through many trials. He carried enormous burdens for us and he helped us. He was a great ally for the light … he was the greatest Irishman of my generation: he had no rivals."

Politicians from both sides of the border praised the poet. Michael D Higgins, the president of the Irish Republic, said: "The presence of Seamus was a warm one, full of humour, care and courtesy – a courtesy that enabled him to carry with such wry Northern Irish dignity so many well-deserved honours from all over the world." The taioseach, Enda Kenny, said that his death "brings great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature".

Heaney was a strong supporter of the peace process in Northern Ireland, memorably paying tribute to the architects of the Good Friday agreement, the then leaders of nationalism and unionism John Hume (whom he dubbed "the hedgehog") and David Trimble ("the fox").

The leader of the Ulster Unionist party, Mike Nesbitt, recalled: "Bill Clinton chose Heaney's great phrase about when 'hope and history rhyme' from The Cure at Troy [the poet's translation of Sophocles' play Philoctetes] in his speech in Londonderry in 1995."

Clinton said: "Both his stunning work and his life were a gift to the world. His mind, heart, and his uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace. And he was a good and true friend."

Fellow writers paid tribute to the poet's sheer human warmth. "Seamus never had a sour moment, neither in person nor on paper," said the playwright Tom Stoppard. "You couldn't help loving him any more than you could help reading on from the first line."

Younger writers bore witness to his generosity. Gerald Dawe, poet and professor of literature at Trinity College Dublin, said he was "like an older brother who encouraged you to do the best you could do". Matthew Hollis, a poet and Heaney's editor at the publisher Faber, recalled being encouraged by Heaney when he sent him poems as a young man.

He called him "a man of hearthside, personal kindness. Within the poetry world he was a father figure: the head of our poetry household … Above all he was a great friend to poetry; showing countless readers what was possible in language, encouraging us to dig a little deeper, to break the skin of our consciousness and our articulacy." The poet Lavinia Greenlaw added: "To receive his warmth and encouragement was like receiving something from the sun."

In his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, Heaney included a poem called Digging – a manifesto, of sorts, for the poet who was also the scion of farmers. "I've no spade to follow men like them," he wrote. But the poem goes on, with the kind of dogged ferocity that all great writers share: "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I'll dig with it."

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Seamus Heaney: a great and generous soul whose genius overrode fear and bigotry | Observer editorial


Heaney reconciled in himself two traditions often seen as being in irreconcilable conflict

Great poets, supposedly, should be mad and bad: tormented, tempestuous and at least a little demented. Seamus Heaney was none of these things. He exuded sanity, on the page and in person. He was calm, restrained, centred.  And this was not a mere matter of personality. There was more than enough madness and badness around him, in Ireland and in the world. He knew that quiet decency and careful, meticulous words posed a more profound challenge to his times than any wildness ever could. His gift, as an artist and as a public figure, was an immense, unwavering, implacable civility.

It was easy to be a little sceptical about Seamus Heaney. Long before he won the Nobel prize, he was Famous Seamus, the superstar bard whose lulling, lyrical voice and memories of an archaic rustic world appealed to those who would otherwise never dream of opening a book of contemporary poetry. His popularity sat uneasily with those who see poetry as the proper pursuit of an especially brilliant and soulful elite. He was also, in the words of WB Yeats, his great predecessor as Irish national poet, a "smiling public man" whose geniality contrasted with the rough awkwardness of so many writers. Yet scepticism could not long survive any sustained contact with the man or his work. Heaney was a great artist and an exemplary public intellectual. He was also, in the troubled history of these islands, a great reconciler.

Heaney was a mesmerising performer and the initial appeal of his poetry had much to do with an apparent nostalgia for a lost world of rural simplicities. While so much poetry was veering into anarchic free expression or recondite word games, he used largely traditional forms to explore largely traditional subjects: nature, childhood, memory, love. If you knew your Wordsworth, you could feel secure with Heaney's subject matter. If you recognised a sonnet or a villanelle, you would have a fair idea of the forms he was using.

His chosen terrain was the firm ground of real and recognisable places, especially the County Derry landscape of his childhood. He provided a refuge from the dissonance and dislocation of a globalised, postmodern existence. But if he had done no more than that he would have been what he never was – a minor poet.

Heaney's greatness lay in his negotiation of that very childhood landscape that might have induced cosy nostalgia. His natural lyric gift, the extraordinary eloquence of a man who spoke, even in ordinary conversation, in complete and beautiful sentences, had to find its voice in bitterly contested territory. As he put it in a talk for the BBC in 1978: "The lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation followed the boundaries of the land. In the names of its fields and townlands, in their mixture of Scots and Irish and English etymologies, this side of the country was redolent of the histories of its owners." From the start, Heaney's landscape contained not just fields and trees and farmhouses, but politics, history and culture.

That history was rancid with fear and bigotry. It found its expression too often in hateful cliches and toxic rhetoric. To write stringent, thoughtful poetry in that context was itself a political act. Heaney recalled that he and his comrades in the extraordinary flowering of poetry in Ulster in the 1960s, "assumed that the tolerances and subtleties of their art were precisely what they had to set against the repetitive intolerance of public life". For too long that seemed a hopeless conceit: Heaney knew very well that poems were no shield against bullets and bombs. Yet he persisted in tolerance and subtlety – each poem was an act of faith in the ultimate efficacy of those civilised values.

He could keep that faith in his writing because he reconciled in himself two traditions often seen as being in irreconcilable conflict. He was proudly and passionately Irish and he occupied a place in Irish life that went back, through Yeats, to the tradition of the Gaelic bards. But he loved, intimately and faithfully, the English poets, from Beowulf to the Elizabethans to Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Ted Hughes. In his great generosity of spirit, he helped his fellow Irish citizens to live with complexity and contradiction and gave back to the English their own poetic tradition, recharged with a sense of public importance. He made it matter.

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Sean O'Hagan: 'Field Work spoke of a world I knew and had just left behind'


How Seamus Heaney's descriptions of life during the Troubles called to mind raw personal experience

I'd just started studying for an English degree in London in 1979 when Seamus Heaney's Field Work was published. It was the first book of his I bought. Grappling with Chaucer and Greek tragedy, and doggedly reading one big Victorian novel after another, that small book of contemporary poetry was both a breathing space and a reminder of home. I carried it around with me for months.

Field Work spoke of a world I knew and had just left behind, physically if not emotionally or psychologically. I was initially taken by the thrust of The Toome Road, with its opening description of British soldiers in armoured cars "warbling along on powerful tyres, all camouflaged with broken alder branches", and taken aback by the line "How long were they approaching down my roads/ As if they owned them?" This was poetry I could connect with on several levels, about strange things I had seen with my own eyes and was now seeing through his. One poem, After a Killing, brought back to me a summer's evening when, while walking home from town with some friends, we suddenly came upon three young local men with guns waiting by an old railway bridge near the ring road in Armagh. Heaney describes a similar moment and summons up its ominous historical and contemporary resonances: "There they were, as if our memory hatched them,/ As if the unquiet founders walked again:/ Two young men with rifles on a hill,/ Profane and bracing as their instruments."

More powerful still were the elegies, The Strand at Lough Beg, written in memory of his recently murdered cousin, Colum McCartney, and Casualty, about a neighbour "blown to bits/ Out drinking in a curfew/ Others obeyed, three nights/ After they shot/ The thirteen men in Derry…" From Field Work I moved on to North, published in 1975, and discovered more poems that spoke to me of where I came from and who I was: Funeral Rites, The Ministry of Fear, Summer 1969, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing and Punishment. The latter, with its evocation of the tarring and feathering of a "little adulteress", seemed to say so much about the conflicts of belonging generated by the bigger conflict that was the Troubles. And it ended on a self-questioning, even self-accusatory note, Heaney seemingly numbering himself among those "who would connive/ in civilized outrage/ yet understand the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge".

These were brave poems, some written from personal experience. That he wrote Field Work in Wicklow, rather than Belfast and Derry, rubbed some Northern Irish Republicans up the wrong way, but I was always baffled by the accusations that Heaney somehow avoided the Troubles as subject matter. He avoided taking sides, or being labelled. ("My passport's green," he famously wrote after being included in a compilation of British poetry, "No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast the Queen.")

I love many of his poems, but those troubled Troubles poems can still transport me to another time and place that now seems so long ago but still seems raw and vivid. He once said: "You deal with public crisis… by making your own imagery and your own terrain take the colour of it." He certainly did that, brilliantly and surefootedly.

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Bono on Seamus Heaney: 'His words have kept me afloat'


The U2 frontman talks about the strength he draws from Seamus Heaney's poetry

Every meeting I've ever had since I began full-time advocacy, I have brought with me a book of Seamus Heaney's poems. I always think if you're asking somebody for something it's a good idea to give them something first. So I always gave them Seamus Heaney's poems. This is from the pope to every president I have ever met. In this past week I gave Seamus's book Electric Light to President Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia. She's currently obsessed with the efforts to bring electricity to her people so she could not believe it.

Seamus has been with me on every journey I have taken, and there have been many times when a retreat into his words has kept me afloat. Most of our life in this kind of work is very concrete, full of facts, but we all have to seek redress from time to time in poetry. Seamus was where I went for that. He was the quietest storm that ever blew into town. As an activist, From the Republic of Conscience has been like a bible for me, something I return to and have returned to for as long as I can remember. Some of those phrases are like tattoos for me, worn very close to the heart.

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Seamus Heaney will lie in the Derry soil that inspired his greatest work


After his funeral in Dublin, the poet and Nobel laureate will make his final journey to the village where he grew up

Seamus Heaney will be laid to rest in the same County Derry soil which his father once cut into with his spade and that he later wrote about in his most famous poem, Digging.

Before his burial on Monday evening there was a reflective calm in Bellaghy, where his family moved when he was a child. The main street was virtually deserted as rain dripped off the lifesize bronze figure of a turf cutter digging, a sculpted interpretation of Heaney's verse by Scottish artist David Anand in the centre of the village.

Outside the cemetery was a bunch of red carnations and a card bearing a handwritten note of gratitude : "Seamus. For Digging, Thank You, Anne." There was also a fresh bouquet on the Heaney family grave.

Among those posting tributes from Bellaghy was his old primary school, Anahorish, with a simple yet touching message of regret on the "death of Seamus, former pupil of the school". Heaney had always expressed his pride in attending its "tin huts".

In Derry city, where Heaney delivered countless readings and on the spot where Bill Clinton sang the poet's praise during his historic 1995 presidential visit, they queued up to pay homage to the Nobel laureate. Among the crowds inside the newly refurbished Guildhall was Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister and key player in the Irish peace process.

After signing the book of condolence, McGuinness told the Observer how a poem he once wrote was framed side by side with a verse from Heaney's Cure of Troy on Ian Paisley's wall at Stormont's parliament buildings. Visibly moved, he recalled how he had asked the poet to type out the verses as a present for Paisley when he retired as Northern Ireland's first minister.

"When Ian stood down as first minister I was wondering what kind of gift I would give him, so I asked Seamus to write the 'hope and history' poem from the Cure of Troy and he did it on absolutely beautiful parchment paper. He sent it up to me and I got it framed. What was very funny was that on the same occasion I presented Seamus's gift to Ian I also presented him with a little poem I wrote myself about Native American Indians and disappearing sea trout!

"When I next met Seamus in Bellaghy I told him that after I'd presented Ian with the two poems, three months later he was looking to see me. I said that when I went into his room in parliament buildings, on the wall there were the two poems side by side. So Ian Paisley effectively elevated me into the highest echelons of Seamus Heaney and the greatest of poets!"

McGuinness said everyone in the city and the county was very emotional because Ireland had lost "its brightest star, even though he was a humble Bellaghy man". He also revealed that Heaney once wrote to him during a critical period in the peace process wishing on him "blessings on all your work".

Among the throng in the Guildhall were sisters Frances and Nuala Ford who were on a holiday weekend. The women, from Galway city, said they were honoured to be able to sign their names in memory of Heaney. "He was a great prophet, not just for Ireland but the entire world. He spoke to everyone, his poems were universal," Nuala said.

Her sister said: "I loved his poetry and I loved the fact that he was a real humble man who was down to earth. He had a great common touch with the people while at the same time being a brilliant poet."

Father Peter O'Kane, based in the Derry diocese but originally from outside Strabane, studied Heaney's poetry in school. He said that because he was from a rural background he could empathise with the poet's depictions of life in the Northern Ireland countryside: "He was always rooted in the land and the people of south Derry and he never forgot that. I only ever heard him read poetry and address an audience once, and I instantly knew what a great communicator he was with people."

The worlds of literature, politics and celebrity will descend on Heaney's funeral in the Church of the Sacred Heart in the Donnybrook area of south Dublin on Monday morning before he is brought on his final journey to Bellaghy.

In the capital of his beloved county ordinary people were breaking off from a snaking queue from the Guildhall and out into the square so they could sign the book. They had been waiting for tickets for a BBC live television broadcast in the refurbished 19th-century building. They had gathered for Songs of Praise,but were singing their own, in single sentences and even little verses, in honour of a son of the County Derry soil.

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Seamus Heaney remembered


Seamus Heaney, who has died at the age of 74, was a poet of immense power, a brilliant intellect, an inspiration to others – and the best of company

My first thought on hearing the immeasurably sad news of Seamus Heaney's death was a sensation of a great tree having fallen: that sense of empty space, desolation, uprooting. Heaney's place in Irish culture – not just in Irish poetry – was often compared to that of WB Yeats, particularly after he followed Yeats in winning the Nobel prize in 1995. He possessed what he himself ascribed to Yeats, "the gift of establishing authority within a culture". But whereas Yeats's shadow was seen, by some of his younger contemporaries at least, as blotting out the sun and stunting the growth of the surrounding forest, Heaney's great presence let in the light. Part of this was bound up in his own abundant personality. Generosity, amplitude and sympathy characterised his dealings with people at every level, and he was the stellar best of company. It was as if he had learned the lesson prescribed (though not really followed) by Yeats: that the creative soul, "all hatred driven hence", might recover "radical innocence" in being "self-delighting, self-appeasing, self-affrighting".

But behind the marvellous manner, unforced charm and wicked hoots of laughter he was one of the most formidable critical intellects of his day, a powerfully subtle analyst of political and social nuance, and the possessor of intellectual antennae that let nothing past them. Living in Ireland and being world-famous was not an unmixed blessing – he described the effects of winning the Nobel as "a mostly benign avalanche" – and he knew how to elegantly evade the occasional begrudgery of others and withdraw into his own resources, sustained by a beloved family life. The distinctiveness of his poetry was unmistakable: a Heaney poem carried its maker's mark on the blade. So was the immense labour that went into the deceptive simplicity of his early collections (throughout his writing career he drew terrific metaphors and images from an extraordinary range of physical work practices). And part of the impact of that early work lay in his use of violence.

That this was often done by implication made it no less shocking; the authentic lifting of the hairs on the back of the neck that I still remember when I opened North (1975), with its exploration of the archaeology of atrocity, was replicated in reading Station Island (1984), with its extraordinary title poem tracing a ghostly Dantean journey through the shades of Irish history, meeting with the dead. This culminates in a visionary encounter with Joyce ("His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers/ came back to me, though he did not speak yet,/ a voice like a prosecutor's or a singer's,/ cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite"), and Joyce spoke to Heaney in more ways than one. Listening to him on Desert Island Discs some years ago, I waited for him to choose Yeats's poems as his elected book, only to hear him demand Ulysses instead; on reflection I was not surprised. His own capaciousness was Joycean.

Like Joyce, Heaney's erudition was immense, and his lectures on literature at Oxford, Harvard and worldwide made wonderful reading and unparalleled listening. They illustrate his openness to world literature and classical history as well as his deep love of unexpected English poets such as Clare and Wordsworth – and his affinity with writers from eastern Europe, Osip Mandelstam above all. "There is an unsettled aspect to the different worlds they inhabit," he wrote in The Government of the Tongue (1988), "and one of the challenges they face is to survive amphibiously, in the realm of 'the times' and the realm of their moral and artistic self-respect." This carried – as he himself pointed out – a resonant echo for a poet afflicted by "the awful and demeaning facts of Northern Ireland's history". He lived in Dublin but never evaded those "facts" of his native territory. Indeed, part of Heaney's immense achievement was to use and expand that "awfulness" and its relation to the creative spirit and artistic commitment, using implication rather than assertion – whether in the haunting parallels and allegories of North, or in later poems like From the Frontier of Writing and From the Republic of Conscience.

The note is there also in his wonderful last collection, Human Chain (2010), where one is pulled – yet again – in the wake of a writer able to push out the boat into a limitless sea. But what struck me most in reading it, along with the almost daunting economy of line, was a whispering sense of elegy – not just because many of the poems were dedicated to the dead, but also because they looped back to his earliest images of pen nibs, farm routines, animal life, the rituals of neighbourhood, and love. This sense of an ending was perhaps a sign of poetic prescience.

At the time of his death, though, I come back to the image of the death of a tree. I remember now that he wrote about this himself – both in a marvellous 1985 essay on the work of Patrick Kavanagh, and then in a sonnet sequence, Clearances, in memory of his mother. The tree in question grew from a chestnut which his aunt planted in a jam jar in 1939, the year of Heaney's birth; it flourished, was transplanted to the garden, became a fully sized tree "that grew as I grew" and came to symbolise his own developing life – until, in his early teens, the family moved away from the house and the new owners cut it down. The absence of the tree then created in Heaney's mind "a kind of luminous emptiness". He now identified, he wrote, with "preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife". This is the thought that he put into Clearances (whose final sonnet is below), and I think of it now as I remember the marvellous spirit of a great poet who was also a great man.

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Seamus Heaney's funeral draws hundreds of mourners


Irish president and taoiseach and members of U2 are among those remembering 'great democrat' at Dublin service

Seamus Heaney was a "great democrat" who could mix with kings, presidents and the ordinary people of his native County Derry, mourners at the poet's funeral were told on Monday.

Monsignor Brendan Devlin said Heaney "could speak to the King of Sweden or an Oxford don or a South Derry neighbour in the directness of a common and shared humanity".

Devlin, who is a family friend, said the Heaney circle were suffering an "immeasurable sense of loss" over the 74-old-poet's death last week.

Rock stars mixed with presidents and prime ministers, politicians, poets and painters as about 1,000 people packed into the Heaney family's parish church in the Donnybrook district of south Dublin.

Among those filing into the Church of the Sacred Heart were the four members of U2: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, along with their partners. They were joined by the president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, the taoiseach, Enda Kenny, his deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, and the former president Mary McAleese. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams represented Sinn Féin at the funeral.

Other mourners included the former Beirut hostage and author Brian Keenan as well as the folk singer Paul Brady, whose songs reflected in music the concerns and pain of the Northern Ireland Troubles that Heaney wrote about in so much of his poetry.

The Hollywood star Stephen Rea and Paddy Moloney from the traditional Irish folk group the Chieftains were also in the congregation. Among others from the Irish literary world were one of his oldest friends and fellow Northern Irish poets Michael Longley.

At the start of the service the master Irish uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn played a lament as a group of Catholic and Protestant clergymen walked together into the Catholic parish church – a symbol of Heaney's own ability in life and in verse to reach across to all communities on the island of Ireland.

The chief mourners include Heaney's widow, Marie, and their children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.

His brother Pat read the first reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus while his niece Sarah Heaney read from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians.

The Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, paid tribute to the poet. Martin said he was a "great man, always a man of kindness".

"Greatness and graciousness belonged together in him," he added.

Before the tributes by the poet Paul Muldoon, one of Heaney's most famous poems, The Given Note, was read out by his friend the publisher Peter Fallon. The poem is set on the remote Blasket Islands on Ireland's south-west Atlantic coast.

Heaney was awarded numerous prizes and received many honours for his work but had recently suffered from ill health. His 2010 poetry collection The Human Chain was written after he suffered a stroke, and the central poem, Miracle, was directly inspired by his illness.

Books of condolence are being opened in Belfast and Dublin. Another opened at the Guildhall in Derry on Saturday.

Meanwhile at the All Ireland Gaelic football semi-final in Croke Park on Sunday between Kerry and Dublin more than 80,000 spectators clapped for two minutes in appreciation of Ireland's national poet and arguably the world's most renowned composer of verse.

Following the funeral Heaney's remains will be taken north across the border and into his native Co Derry, where he will be buried in the local Catholic church in Bellaghy village.

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Robert Macfarlane leads Warwick prize shortlist


Man Booker prize judge experiences life on the list as his travelogue The Old Ways vies with poetry and fiction for £25,000 award

History, science, poetry and fiction books are vying for the £25,000 Warwick prize for writing. The shortlist is led by Robert Macfarlane's "intricate, sensuous, haunted" The Old Ways, about walking the pathways of the British Isles, and Jim Al-Khalili's Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science, a history of the "bubbling invention and delighted curiosity of the Islamic world".

"I like to think of the Warwick prize as capacious," said Ian Sansom, professor of English and comparative literary studies at Warwick University and chair of the judges for the biennial prize. "We hope to draw on works of all kinds with intellectual, scientific and imaginative energy and clarity." The prize is unusual in that nominations are invited from members of staff and students, and whittled down by the judges to the six books on the shortlist.

Alice Oswald, winner of the 2002 TS Eliot prize, is shortlisted for Memorial, a reworking of Homer's Illiad memorialising every solider's death to create "remembering on a grand scale". Delusions of Gender, the cognitive neuroscientist Cordelia Fine's study of the science underpinning gender stereotypes, is the third work of non-fiction to make the shortlist.

The fiction contenders are Etgar Keret's short story collection Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, which reflects the "chaos and randomness of everyday existence", according to Sansom's Guardian review; and the novel Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth, which is a tale of two young women in an isolated religious community in Wisconsin.

Author Macfarlane, who is chair of judges for the 2013 Man Booker prize finds himself on the other side of the fence this time around.

The Warwick prize for writing is awarded for a substantial piece of work in English in any genre or form, by the University of Warwick and, for the first time in 2013, also by Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, following an alliance between the two institutions. "Broadening it out to Australia this year did bring in a more global perspective," Sansom said. The shortlisted authors are British, Iraqi-British, Canadian-British, American-Australian and Israeli.

Joining Sansom as judges this year are acclaimed writer and professor Marina Warner and Professor Ed Byrne, the vice-chancellor and president of Monash University. The shortlist was announced at Melbourne writers' festival, Australia, and the prize will be awarded on 24 September at the Wallace Collection, London.

Naomi Klein was the inaugural winner of the prize in 2009 for her book The Shock Doctrine, an exposé of how a privileged few are making millions from worldwide disasters. Peter Forbes triumphed in 2011 for Dazzled and Deceived, a study of mimicry and camouflage in nature, art and warfare.

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Poem of the week: Łódź by Sujata Bhatt


This meditation on horror and healing, set in a Jewish cemetery that was part of the Łódź Ghetto, achieves a tentative blessing

Sujata Bhatt's newly published Collected Poems explores, with remarkable consistency of voice and style, a lifetime of rich, diverse cultural experience. Born in Ahmedabad in 1956, Bhatt describes her background as "a traditional Gujarati Brahmin family of writers, teachers, social workers, musicians and scientists". She learned English at the age of five, when her father, a virologist, moved the family to New Orleans, and ultimately took an MFA degree at the University of Iowa.

Her absorption in 20th-century American poetics, and her interest in Eastern European literature in translation, are reflected in this week's poem, "Łódź", as is her residence in Germany since the late 1980s.

Originally published in Augatora (2000), "Łódź" forms part of a section titled "History is a Broken Narrative". Some poems pick up various fragments of the limitless human diaspora and solder them together, often augmented by the stories and voices of individuals. Other poems, like this one, centre on a reticent personal act of witness that seems akin to meditation.

In the shadows of Łódź lie several broken narratives of the 20th century. The Jewish cemetery of the poem, established in 1892, formed part of the Łódź Ghetto in German-occupied Poland. "Łódź" acknowledges this history obliquely by beginning with a kind of tactful withdrawal from its own impulse: "I hesitate to say/ what I think:/ 'this cemetery is beautiful' …" The use of dashes throughout the poem, sometimes in lieu of full stops, emphasises the delicacy of feeling, as if more formal punctuation would too severely pin down and possess the poem's subject.

It's entirely fitting that the diction is simple and almost colloquial. This linguistic style might be described as formal-informal. The plainness is not quite that of ordinary speech: "it is" is never elided to "it's". That kind of formality slows and dignifies the utterance. It represents one of the subtle ways in which the poem is accountable to its occasion while minimal in figure and rhetoric.

In the fourth line, the break momentarily urges us to read "the cemetery that was" and it's as if a slight shift of light makes us review the meaning as we get to the next line and follow the sentence to its end: "this cemetery that was/ once in the heart of the ghetto" . A similarly glancing verbal shift is produced by the break after "still".

The poem begins tentatively to move to its emotional core with the image of the earth "trying to heal itself" and the speaker "reluctant to leave". Dashes, as well as suggesting hesitation, make connections. Parallel to these little grammatical silences, the silence of the landscape is an interleaving silence "between the dead" and "between the wild flowers/ and the sky …"

It's also an internal silence "that pulls me/ deeper into my own being" and it accrues a gravitational force. It seals the speaker into the meditation I mentioned earlier.

At this point, the poem becomes very concentrated. While "looking for another/ path I could walk down" the speaker, we sense, is motionless. She scans the area for the inviting prospect of a new path between the graves, and simultaneously an interior avenue seems to make her part of the landscape.

The speaker continues the dialogue with herself, juxtaposing present certainty ("It is May") with the conditional moods of the future. There's a possibility, even a hope, that she would visit every day, and walk here "even during the darkest days of November/ and December –" but the voice seems too wise and too candid to take the intention as far as a pledge.

Characteristically, the poem ends on a dash, not a full stop. Without the slightest arrogance on the speaker's part, it achieves a tentative blessing: a sense that the place has been salved by the vision of historical continuity, that vista of paths which extend before and after the horror of the ghetto. Trees, grass and flowers have sprung up around the gravestones. This Polish cemetery seems warmed and soothed by the green light that emanates from Bhatt's memory of her childhood garden in Poona.


I hesitate to say
what I think:
'This cemetery is beautiful' –
this cemetery that was
once in the heart of the ghetto –

But it was there before
the ghetto – and it is still
being used today.

The earth
is trying to heal itself –

I am reluctant to leave –

The silence between the dead –
The silence between the wild flowers
and the sky – the silence that pulls me
deeper into my own being
is what keeps me
standing here looking for another
path I could walk down –

It is May and the green
shadows falling across the stones
make me think
that if I lived in this town
I would visit
this place every day –

It is May but I tell myself
that if I lived in this town
I would walk here even
during the darkest days of November
and December –

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Seamus Heaney's last words were 'Noli timere', son tells funeral


Poet texted Latin phrase meaning 'don't be afraid' to wife minutes before he died, says Michael Heaney

His voice quavering, the son of Seamus Heaney has told mourners of his father's final words, minutes before his death.

At a requiem mass in Dublin, crowded with mourners, Michael Heaney described how the poet and Nobel laureate, who died last week at the age of 74, had chosen Latin for the message to his wife, Marie. His last words were "in a text message he wrote to my mother just minutes before he passed away, in his beloved Latin and they read: 'Noli timere' – 'don't be afraid.'"

Mourners at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, south Dublin, were led by the poet's widow, Marie, and their three children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.

But such was Heaney's impact and the affection in which he was held that the crowd was swollen by Hollywood actors, rock stars, presidents past and present and prime ministers, as well as scores of ordinary people whose lives were touched by the Nobel prize winner's poetry.

Among the crowd were the members of U2, led by Bono, the actor Stephen Rea and Paddy Moloney from the Chieftains. Shane MacGowan, former frontman for the Pogues, arrived as Holy Communion was being given out.

The president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, attended as did the taoiseach, Enda Kenny, his deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore and the former Irish president Mary McAleese. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams represented Sinn Féin.

Heaney's fellow poet Paul Muldoon recalled that when he landed in Belfast international airport on Sunday a security officer checking his passport had asked what he did for a living in the United States.

"I told him I was a teacher and when he asked me what I taught, I said poetry. And then he looked at me directly and said: 'You must be devastated today.'" For Muldoon the words of genuine concern from a border control official reflected how his friend's work had touched so many around the world.

During his tribute at the end of mass, Muldoon lightened the mood when he remembered a phone call he made to the Heaney household in Dublin nearly 30 years ago.

Muldoon said that Michael Heaney, then a teenager, had picked up the phone and eventually said: "I suppose you want to speak to Head-the-Ball?", meaning his father.

Muldoon said the nickname Michael had given his father (a term in Ireland to denote someone being slightly mad) told him that there had been a "wonderfully relaxed attitude between father and teenage son, one I now know is so difficult to establish and even more difficult to maintain".

Among the celebrities and politicians were ordinary people, some of whom had their own stories about encountering Heaney. Pat McParland from south Armagh told the Guardian how the poet gave him and his future wife Joanne an impromptu engagement present inside a Dublin restaurant six years ago.

"Joanne and I were in Dunne and Crescenzi, an Italian restaurant in Dublin's Frederick Street to celebrate our engagement. Seamus Heaney was sitting nearby us with some people having dinner. We kept getting mobile phone calls as people rang in to congratulate us getting engaged. Seamus must have overheard us and went over to wish us all the very best. Then he pulled out a poetry collection which contained his poem Scaffolding. He then wrote a couple of verses from that poem into the book by hand and then gave it to us as an engagement present. This gift from Seamus has become a very precious thing for Joanne and myself," McParland said.

Among others from the Irish literary world were one of his oldest friends and fellow Northern Irish poet Michael Longley. Other mourners included the former Beirut hostage and author Brian Keenan as well as the folk singer Paul Brady whose songs reflected in music the concerns and pain of the Northern Ireland Troubles that Heaney wrote about in so much of his poetry. Liam O'Flynn played haunting traditional Irish laments on the uillean pipes during the service.

After the mass ended the funeral cortege began the long journey north, across the border and into south Derry where Heaney drew much of his inspiration in his early poetry. He was buried in Bellaghy, the south Derry village where he grew up.

There has been wave after wave of tributes to the Nobel laureate since his death was announced on Friday. Around 80,000 stood up and clapped and cheered in his honour for three minutes at the All Ireland Gaelic football semi-final on Sunday between Dublin and Kerry. Books of condolence have been opened in Derry, Belfast and Dublin. But it was his son Michael's speech which he said would be "nothing fancy" that encapsulated the writing and the philosophy of the greatest Irish poet since WB Yeats.

Seamus Heaney told generations of aspiring writers: "Do not be afraid" in taking up the pen. Through decades he implored politicians, north and south, unionist and nationalist, "do not be afraid" in choosing the path of peace and eventually ending the Troubles by putting down the gun.

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Seamus Heaney: my travels with the great poet


Seamus Heaney was a great poet and friend, says Andrew O'Hagan, as he relives their travels in Scotland, Ireland and Wales – tucking into chowder and contemplating the afterlife

He was simply a source of grace, a blessing, and you always knew he was on your side. I was lucky to know those qualities and see them captured in a single name – Seamus. What is it about some people that they seem to carry a kind of moral gladness with them?

Not that they are always good or always right, but that they hold out the possibility of a better selfhood for everybody. In the few days since he died, I've been feeling sore in the heart, because a light has gone out, a reliable comfort. More than that: a genius with a sublime human touch is now beyond reach. I recall the story of the little boy who watched as Robert Burns's funeral cortege passed through the town of Dumfries. "But who will be our poet now?" he said to his mother.

Two decades ago, when I worked at the London Review of Books, the editor, Karl Miller, would ask me to get people on the phone. Late one afternoon, when the paper was being put to bed, he had his nose about two inches from the page, a galley of Seamus's poem in tribute to Hugh MacDiarmid. "Seamus, I'm very grateful to you," said the editor to the poet down the line. "The problem is this. We're delighted with the poem, but there's a mistake in it.

("A mistake?" I imagined Seamus saying. "We can't have mistakes in the London Review of Books.")

"The thing is, you have this thing about MacDiarmid's 'chattering genius'. That's wrong. I'm from Scotland myself. You once said sheep chatter. And I can tell you Scottish sheep don't chatter, Seamus – they blether. Surely you mean MacDiarmid's 'blethering genius'?"

In more recent years, the three of us started going on jaunts together. Everywhere we went, Seamus was recognised, and people felt he might have made their day or changed their life. (It was part of his good nature that each claim seemed to have the same weight with him.) Three years ago, I went with him to the University of Strathclyde so that he could receive an honorary doctorate. His wife Marie and I thought he wasn't looking well and, indeed, he suffered a minor stroke before the event and was taken to the Royal Infirmary. Before the ambulance doors closed, he gave me his speech and told me to read it out. "They'll be waiting," he said. "I know you'll do some credit to the words."

When the ceremony was over and I turned up at the hospital, he was sitting up in bed, joking with Marie, while the young doctor spoke to him about how much he loved his poem The Skunk.

My father had died at the beginning of that week. "No matter what happens," he had said to me, "make sure you go and do that thing with Seamus. He's been good to you and he's a lovely man." When I got back to Inverness, I read a poem of Seamus's at my father's funeral and dropped the poem into his grave. My father's ancestors had come to Scotland from Magherafelt – a few miles from where Seamus grew up – and it felt proper to let the poetry of the old country go with him into the stony ground. I knew both men would appreciate it, allowing neighbouring voices to bridge the day, and it gave me comfort to know that all appointments had been met.

Memory was everything to Seamus. The memory of his father digging in the yard. The memory of peeling potatoes with his mother, or once noticing the glad eye of the coalman. He had a mind to Ireland's memory, the seasonal return of faith and possibility, the falling away and the coming back of things. He cared for this the way other people care about politics. He wanted to offer value to a notion of existence beyond the bounds of sense, and that is where his language led him, to the power of wonder and miracles in daily life. Great is the friend whose one small shove can put you on the upswing. Being with him, I always felt able to give everything its due. His was a steadiness that befriended the person you wanted to be.

In Ayrshire, I once walked with him in a garden next to the town where I grew up. We took our drinks over the grass, and I showed him a gap in the trees revealing Ailsa Craig, the rock that stands in the sea between Ireland and Scotland. Later on, at the birthplace of Robert Burns, we looked in on a multimedia exhibition called the Tam O'Shanter Experience.

"Soon there'll be the Seamus Heaney Experience," said Karl Miller.

"That's right," said Seamus. "It'll be a few churns and a confessional box."

I asked Seamus how the folk around where he grew up reacted to him being awarded the Nobel prize for literature. "Ignored it for the most part, I'm sure," he said. "But yes, after the Stockholm Intervention, a certain Jackie Graham of the local grocery shop in Bellaghy wanted to open a Heaney Museum. 'It'll be good for you and good for us,' he said." Seamus didn't stand in his way and made sure some manuscripts and posters were put into the fellow's hands.

We drove on and went into the old church at Ettrick, and Seamus climbed up to the pulpit. He began quoting Thomas Hardy's The Darkling Thrush, 31 December 1900. He spoke of a visit he and Marie made to Stinsford Churchyard in Dorset, where Hardy's heart is buried, at Hogmanay in the year 2000.

"It's so quiet in here," I said. And the poet's voice rose up and seemed to rescue the beams from their own dampness. "That's a warm voice, Seamus," I said.

"Well," he replied, "the long day wanes, as the master said."

The greatest of our trips was the one to the west of Ireland. We stopped for lunch at a favourite place of Seamus's called Moran's. It specialises in oysters, and they gave us a table to ourselves in the snug. There was a nice bottle of Alsace and we all three had chowder. Seamus once wrote a poem after coming here, called Oysters:

We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.

Laying down a perfect memory. That was it, wasn't it? That was the thing, and I knew it at the time. In the main room of Yeats's tower at Ballylee, with the shallow stream below and the light coming at the green-framed window, I looked at Seamus and Karl and suddenly had a vision of a time when none of us would be alive.

Yeats wrote about such a feeling in his poem In Memory of Major Robert Gregory:

Now that we're almost settled in our house
I'll name the friends that cannot sup with us …
… Or mere companions of my youth,
All, all in my thoughts tonight being dead.

We went to the Aran Islands. As we left the boat at Inisheer, I could hear people whispering Seamus's name, and he was very good with that, saying hello to people. The island was so serene and filled with literary echoes. We climbed into a pony and trap at the pier and were soon off round the island. The man driving the vehicle was the very picture of robust outdoor health, and Seamus took pleasure, he said, in the way the fellow "lazily whipped" the pony every few seconds. "You're the famous poet," he said. He clearly thought Seamus was a country man who had made it into the universe of electricity and television.

The next day, back in Dublin, Seamus took us over to St Patrick's Cathedral, and we stood before Swift's grave, reading Yeats's tribute, then Pope's. I went round the corner from there and saw a plaque on the wall to Swift's servant – put there, apparently, by Swift himself. I thought this was very cheerfully democratic and said so to Seamus as we stood in the cathedral's main aisle. "Diligence and prudence," said Seamus. "Well played, that man."

Three winters passed before we got another journey together. We'd been thinking about Wales for some time and set out at the start of the summer in 2010. Seamus agreed that we should pick him up at a hotel near Birmingham airport. By the Birkenhill Parkway, Seamus was standing outside his hotel next to a fire engine, as the entire human contents of the building were evacuated in a drill. Seamus was staring into space. "Look," said Karl, "the Great Bucolic Contemplates Life Among the Ring Roads."

The landscape at the Welsh border was green and silvery and not short of magnificent, the hills rising from nowhere. Wordsworth saw a model of immortality in the hills. "Without the consciousness of a principle of immortality in the human soul," he writes in his Essay Upon Epitaphs, "man could never have had awakened in him the desire to live in the remembrance of his fellows … To be born and to die are the two points in which all men feel themselves to be in absolute coincidence."

The grave of the poet Henry Vaughan can be found on a hill next to the River Usk. He lies in the graveyard of Llansantffraed Church, where there are trees on every side, the trees advancing like Birnam Wood. There are words, of course, on all the graves, but more than that there are words in the air:

They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling'ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

Vaughan's grave is under a giant yew tree. It is stained with moss and lichens, its Latin phrases shaded. There's no obvious path up from the road, so we climbed through the grass and found the grave looking not obscure but unvisited. There's a bench to one side, with a bank of very old gravestones – some as old as Vaughan's (1695) – now attached to the wall for their preservation.

I took pictures while Karl and Seamus sat on a bench and argued about the Latin on Vaughan's grave. The epitaph speaks of maximum sin and an eternity of supplication before God. Seamus later wrote a poem where he referred to me as "ardent Andrew" and pictured him and Karl on "the mossy seat".

"Well, here's Vaughan," said Karl. "A believer. It's hard to think of you, Seamus, without belief. I find it hard not to believe you believe."

"I stopped practising a long time ago," said Seamus, "but some of it holds. If you have it as a child, it gives you a structure of consciousness – the idea there is something more."

"I probably wouldn't go that far," said Karl. "But I have to say: I always believed I would see my granny again. She was good to me."

"For me, it was my father," said Seamus. "I'd hope to see him again, all right."

We stayed there for a while and Seamus spoke about TS Eliot and his Four Quartets. In all our gadding about, there had been many versions of pastoral and an easy dalliance of time past and time present, but I sensed that, for Seamus at least, it wasn't like Eliot's rose garden up here. It was just a place where you could rest your bones, take a breath. And that's what we did that day as the world of light came into the trees.

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Letter: Seamus Heaney's poem for a shoeless lady


After taking part in a poetry programme for BBC School Radio, Seamus Heaney and I repaired to the George pub, round the corner from the BBC, with the producer Stuart Evans and his wife, Kay. We then walked to Soho for a curry. Outside the restaurant Seamus found a lady's court shoe lying in the gutter. He picked it up and took it with us into the restaurant.

During the meal Seamus inscribed a poem on the inside of the shoe. He did not show it to us. After the meal I asked him if I could have it. "Oh no," he said. "It's for the lady." He laid the shoe reverently back where he had found it and we went our separate ways into the night.

I often asked him if he had ever had a reply from the shoeless woman. "Not yet," he said. "But you never know." I hope she realises what a treasure she has.

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Paul Kelly: 'The words are never easy. It's still a beast to wrestle' - interview


The Australian singer-songwriter on his new song cycle Conversations with Ghosts, that takes poetry as its inspiration

He might be hailed as one of Australia's greatest lyricists, but Paul Kelly is often relunctant to discuss his songs. He's downright rhapsodic, however, about Five Bells, the central piece of the song cycle Conversations with Ghosts, playing at the Brisbane festival on Saturday. "Oh yeah," he gasps. "What a poem! It's amazing."

It helps, of course, that the lyrics are not his: they're taken from Kenneth Slessor's 1937 poem of the same name. "I discovered it a long time ago, in my late teens, and it's lived with me ever since," Kelly explains. "I don't think I really understood it when I first read it, but I always remember phrases like 'deep and dissolving verticals of light' or 'These funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.' It's just studded with these beautiful jewels of language."

Slessor's poem about death and loss, written for his friend Joe Lynch, who jumped off a ferry in Sydney harbour in 1927, sums up the larger theme of the cycle. "It was always a bit uncertain as to whether [Lynch] jumped or he fell. He was a big drinker and he had these big longneck bottles of beer in his greatcoat, which may have weighed him down," says Kelly. "But the story goes that they never did find his body. Slessor wrote the poem about ten years later – and didn't write much more poetry after that, actually."

The halting rhythms of the poem formed the unlikely backbone of a project constructed by Kelly and the Australian National Academy of Music's 2011 composer-in-residence, James Ledger. "ANAM approached me and said 'would you write a song cycle with a modern classical composer?' That was the brief, as broad as that." Kelly was just emerging from a period where he'd been working on his memoir How To Make Gravy instead of writing songs. "I thought it was very interesting, and also very scary – and I thought 'if it's scary, I should probably have a go at it'."

The thought of writing something fresh with a classical composer inspired him into action – but , it was a rusty start: "I thought 'how the hell am I going to write a song cycle when I can't even think of one song?' So I thought: 'I'll look at some poems and try singing them'."

Five Bells was the first piece he started toying with. "I just picked the guitar and started trying to sing it – well, chant it, really – and I got about a third of the way through and thought 'I'm never gonna make this work'." Kelly recorded the idea and sent it to Ledger anyway – Ledger lives in Perth, while Kelly is based in Melbourne – who thought it had possibilities. "That encouraged me to carry on."

The idea of a series of works based on poems was born from Ledger's response which looked at an extract of the Tennyson poem In Memorium. "James suggested the section that talks about the bells, Ring Out Wild Bells, and that really got us up and running: we had two poems, both eulogies to dead friends, both ringing the bells. So once we had those two I started choosing poems that fitted in with that."

Were there any pieces that seemed ideal but just couldn't be wrestled into a usable form? "I wanted to sing a birth poem for this thing, and I tried Morning Song by Sylvia Plath. It'd be great for a song – you know, 'Love set you going like a fat gold watch'," he recites, clearly relishing the rhythm of the syllables. Despite a strong start, Kelly was unable to make the song work. That thematic place was taken by Judith Wright's Woman to Man "which somewhat had the same counterpoints in the piece. I mean, a lot of it was 'here are my favourite poems. Do they fit? Eh, yeah'," he laughs.

The pair also wanted to use the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, even working up the music – "we had a really good piece for it" – but unable to get permission from the Robert Frost. "The story goes that Frost had once gone to hear one of his poems set to music and absolutely hated it, so that's it for putting his work to music. They won't allow it."

That piece morphed into the show's closing piece, I'm Not Afraid of the Dark Anymore ("I kept the rhyme scheme of the poem, and the last line, 'miles to go before I sleep'"), but some of the other poems were welcome discoveries for Kelly.

"From very early on we knew Genevieve Lacey, the recorder virtuoso, was going to be a featured artist, and she's also a big reader of poetry. She brought in the Emily Dickinson: she said 'she's got plenty of poems about death'," he explains. Kelly, while familiar with much of Dickinson's work, didn't know Lacey's choice, One Need Not be a Chamber to be Haunted.

"Apart from being a meditation on death and absence of loved ones and friends, we really liked the ghost element. It fitted with a song, Bound to Follow, which I'd written just before this project came along. It was a bit of an odd one for me, but it slotted right in with this. It was all like fooling around with a little puzzle and gradually getting things to fit."

Having spent so much time focusing on the memoir, Conversations with Ghosts offered a welcome opportunity for Kelly to get outside of his own head and play with other people's words. "Even with my own songs I never start with the words, it's always the music and then I attach the words gradually," he says. "So to have a set of words was so much fun: I could just try things out. 'Can I sing this? What if we do this?' And to have these beautifully written words, which I didn't have to write – what fun!"

It's an unexpected sentiment to hear from such a fine lyricist – especially given last year's magnificent Spring and Fall, an album that is itself a song cycle with a strong narrative arc following the birth, stasis and death of a relationship.

"Oh, there's always snatches of words attached with any piece I'm writing," he clarifies, "and sometimes I might have a title – like with I'm On Your Side – and a rough idea of what the song is about. And the cycle emerges, and once you get a glimpse that it might be happening it starts to push you towards writing songs that fit. But the words are never easy. It's still a beast to wrestle."

• Paul Kelly plays Concert Hall, QPAC as part of Brisbane Festival on Saturday September 7, 8pm

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