Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died at 74

Seamus Heaney is shown in 1970. His work explored the wild beauty of Ireland and the political torment within the nation's soul. (Associated Press)

"There was always lots of laughter in their company," Strachan told the Los Angeles Times. Strachan left Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1988, "but the Christmas cards still came from his and Marie's home to ours every year thereafter. He never forgot his friends."

In 1995, Heaney became the fourth Irish writer to win the Nobel, after Yeats, Samuel Beckett and George Bernard Shaw. In his Stockholm acceptance speech, he took his audience back to his family home in County Derry in the 1940s.

"It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other," Heaney said. "We took in everything that was going on … rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house...."

Heaney continued to write prolifically. "His Irish farmhouse beginnings have been the launch point and beacon for a poetry that has gone immeasurably beyond them," Richard Eder wrote in a 1996 review for The Times of the poetry collection "The Spirit Level."

When Muske-Dukes and several other poets were invited to the White House in 1998, she learned just how influential Heaney had become. President Clinton asked his poet guests if they had read Heaney's translation of Sophocles' "The Cure at Troy."

"Before we could answer, he quoted the lines that refer to 'hope' and said he kept those lines framed 'upstairs,'" presumably in the Oval Office, Muske-Dukes said.

But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up
and hope and history rhyme.

The president told the poets that his reading of the Heaney translation had prompted him to visit the poet in Ireland, to "ask his advice," before traveling to the Middle East and dealing with "the troubles" there.

Heaney's later work included a popular verse translation of "Beowulf" in 2001.

His work was restricted after he suffered a stroke in 2006. But just last March, he could be found at the Oxford Literary Festival, speaking and reading at the Sheldonian Theatre.

The poet appeared frail and faltered as he read but seemed reinvigorated when he fell into the cadence of his poems, audience members said.

The last poem he read was "Postscript," from the collection "The Spirit Level."

You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

Times staff writer Henry Chu contributed to this report from London.