When I was a child, there were two books of poetry in the whirligig at home: a collected Tennyson that had once been given to my great-grandmother by my great-grandfather, and a Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke which my mother had won as a school prize. Nobody read them. Nobody read anything much. They preferred the life outdoors. Then I began doing English A-level, and was taught for the first time by Peter Way, who walked straight into my head and turned the lights on. Within a few weeks my old life seemed to have fallen away (though not the subjects it contained), and all I wanted to do was to write and read poems.
My parents were bemused, but Mr Way was pleased and began lending me books of his own: Wordsworth, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Larkin. One day, standing by his desk to return whatever it was Id borrowed that week, I noticed at his elbow a copy of Door into the Dark by someone Id never heard of before – Seamus Heaney. Noticed because I wasnt sure how you pronouncedSeamus, because the title was so alluring, and because the lettering on the jacket was very beautiful.
“Whats that, sir?
“Its just come out. (This would have been the winter of 1969.) Its his second book.
I wanted to borrow it, but I couldnt; Mr Way was still reading it. So next weekend I biked into Oxford and bought a copy in Blackwells. I already owned a few Penguin poetry collections (Robert Graves, e e cummings, Baudelaire: I had no plan to my reading, I was just gobbling at random), but this was the first book of proper contemporary poetry. It felt like a significant moment. And …
In later life we can still sometimes sense the top of our head ripping open when we find a new book to love. But not much compares to the sheer amazement, delight, shock, recognition we felt at such moments in the earlier part of our lives. Today I have only to see that same copy of Door into the Dark sitting on my bookshelves to remember the feeling that a locked-up door in my life had suddenly swung open, and a different future was possible.
And, paradoxically, all the more so because as well as feeling absolutely surprising, the book was full of things I recognised – even though the rural East Anglia of my childhood was a far cry from rural County Derry, and my stage in life was very different from Heaneys. When I read about the Green froth that lathered each end / Of the shining bit, I saw the horses in the stable yard at home; when I came to the billhook / Whose head was hand-forged and heavy, I was clearing undergrowth with my dad; when I swam through A Lough Neagh Sequence, I was back fishing again in the rivers and loughs Id known in my childhood.
In other words, the book made me feel adventurous and rooted at the same time. Of course I missed important things – including and especially a lot of the politics and religion, which I picked up later in poems like In Gallarus Oratory and Requiem for the Croppies. But Id heard the principal melody of things, or so I felt, and its not an exaggeration to say I fell in love with it.
Since then, Ive read better books of poems, including better books by Heaney, but no other collection has touched me like this one. The squelch and slap of the writing; the beautiful interplay of vowels and consonants (which carried Heaneys voice into my ear long before I ever heard him speak); the connections between past and present (always cleverly done, but with no smartassery); the narrative anecdotes (in The Wifes Tale, for instance), as gripping as a short story; the warmth of the heart at work.
Inevitably, I suppose, I wanted to contact the man who had made me feel like this – just to thank him. So I wrote him a fan letter. I shudder now to think what it must have said, and even at the time it didnt seem strange that I never had an answer. But I was undaunted.
Early in the spring of the following year, I noticed that Heaney and Ted Hughes (whom I had also got pretty keen on) were due to read some poems by Wordsworth (ditto) at an event at the Poetry Society in London – I think it must have been to celebrate the bicentenary of Wordsworths birth.
Off I went to listen, and found myself in an audience about 25-strong. Imagine. At the end I took up my copy of Door into the Dark for Heaney to sign. I must have told him about the unanswered missive, because in black biro on the title page he wroteSeamus Heaney to Andrew Motion – instead of a letter – with thanks 7th April 1970. I carried it home like a trophy. Actually no, not at all like a trophy – or only when I showed it to Mr Way. Like treasure.