‘I am fragments’: a note from Seamus Heaney

2013-09-02 14.38.14

In the spring of 1998 I wrote to Seamus Heaney. I asked him to consider writing a Foreword to the book I was editing with Siân Hughes, then Education Officer for the Poetry Society.

In all honesty I did not expect him to reply. I was sure a poet as well-known as Heaney, and with as many demands on his time, would do the expected thing and file my request in the waste paper basket. I was also secretly ashamed of the guff I know I had subjected him to, proclaiming poetry as ‘the original virtual reality’, among other howlers.

So when Heaney wrote back to me, I was dumbfounded. Delighted, yes. But dumbfounded. To quote his own response when Charles Monteith invited him to submit a manuscript to Faber, it was like getting a letter from God the Father.

In a typed note of not more than seven lines he explained that he had to say no: ‘I feel I have to watch how many of these introductions I do. The writing I do nowadays seems to be mostly endorsements, exhortations, millennial messages, and so on. As Matthew Arnold said “I am fragments.” Please excuse me.’

The courtesy of his tone knocked me sideways. I had readied myself for curtness. Instead I held in my hand this tiny admission that seemed both unnecessarily honest and somewhat heartbreaking. It is one of my most treasured possessions.

Lifesaving Poems

Seamus Heaney’s ‘Night Drive’


  1. Wow!!!

    Olwen Goodall

    Graduate School of Education College of Social Sciences and International Studies University of Exeter

    +44 (0) 1392 661000 ________________________________


  2. Wonderful blog.
    I have written to The Man on a couple of occasions, feeling guilty at taking writing/living time.
    And he always wrote back: a picture postcard, with a note that always reflected what I had written.
    So kind, so generous, so human. Puts many another to shame.


    1. Thank you. How wonderful to know he was consistent with everyone. Real integrity. An exemplar on all fronts. As ever, Anthony Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere



  3. I once found a message on my voicemail from Heaney, whom I’d asked for a small favour wearing my Director of National Poetry Day hat. “It’s Seamus Heaney here”, he said, adding “calling from Dublin”, to save any confusion with other men called Seamus Heaney who might be calling me that day. “Of course you may use my poem, and there will be no charge.” Any time I have found poets getting a bit arsey with me in subsequent years, or catch myself getting airs and graces, I remember that the greatest was also the most courteous and humble.

    Liked by 1 person

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