Cambridge doesn't have a Professor of Poetry. Oxford has just lost one.
Seamus Heaney and I each began our Oxford association in 1989. He was newly appointed Oxford's latest Professor of Poetry; I was beginning undergraduate life armed with a congratulatory book token from my school and aspiring to an account at Blackwell's. Among the first books I bought myself that October was a 1984 Faber and Faber edition of Heaney's Station Island. It includes the short poem The First Gloss:
Take hold of the shaft of the pen.
Subscribe to the first step taken
from a justified line
into the margin.
Plunging into the deep, dark, freedoms of a degree course, not to mention adulthood, I liked Heaney's dictum, all the more when the slim volume from which it came stood alongside the fat, fresher flanks of my new Riverside Chaucer, Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and Joyce's Ulysses (which I still haven't finished).
Cold shouldering my first Michaelmas reading list (I know because I proudly dated all my purchases), I bought more Heaney, second-hand and on account. First, a 1972 edition, slightly foxed, of Wintering Out. It took me to wet, wild, earthy places, far removed from the smooth desks and warm walls of Oxford. Next, a 1980 edition of Selected Poems 1965-1975, signed and dated by the poet. I know I will have paid much less than the £2.95 cover price. However much it was, it was money well spent. My battels bill that first term was a whisker over £400, all in. Both book and bill were good value, and sustaining.
I heard Seamus Heaney lecture only once, at the Department of Zoology on South Parks Road. I remember more about what he looked like than what he said, but remember most how he sounded: convincing. When I heard of his death, I re-read a transcript of the speech he gave to the Swedish Academy on being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. It was involving and passionate and, from among Heaney's resonant phrases, I pocketed his exhortation to "walk on air against your better judgment". At the start of a new academic year, or at anytime, it was, and remains, sound advice.
Image by SeanOConnor2010 under Creative Commons license