I have followed both of their works since the 1980s. Both are incredible, but I had the pleasure of spending time with Heaney years ago.
In 1985, I had the pleasure to be at a very small conference that featured Seamus Heaney as keynote. I took a van full of Haskell Indian Nations University, then Haskell Indian Junior College, students to Pittsburg State in southeast Kansas to be part of the Kansas Writers Association, a state group of college creative writing departments and independent writers. Most of us were AWP members also. Michael Heffernan was one of the organizers, as well as Stephen Meats, poetry editor of Midwest Quarterly, and the special collections librarian, Gene DeGruson. Altogether maybe there were 75 attendees. This background helps to explain the intimacy of the event.
Heaney did his keynote, and I remember his chattiness and charm. His poems had sounds I had not heard arranged so densely in a poem. His poems taught me about country life in Ireland and those politics as well. He was companionable, comfortable, and engaging as a reader. But also, despite his reputation, even then, he participated and seemed to enjoy all the events. He did not present his talk, collect a check, and speed away to the airport.
For me the greatest moment came during the open mic. All the visiting program directors read, and he paid rapt attention. Although I was dry-mouthed, I stood up at my turn, read a few poems, and got caught up in the words; I hammed it up a bit. I had the sense he was encouraging some of the local texture I was adding to the poems. Heaney applauded and congratulated me afterwards. Perhaps he was just being polite, but I was thrilled. It buoyed me through the next years of learning the craft. I will never forget his kindness at that time, when he was prominent but not yet a superstar. His hair was coal black, his words apt, his heart kind.