REMEMBERING SEAMUS HEANEY: Several Brief Personal Memories

Seamus Heaney, Irish poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74

(NYT headline, August 30, 2013)

I have so many memories of Seamus Heaney, on the page and on the stage, and this is a record of them and not an analysis of his work, though I have spent much more time with his work, which which has meant and remains too much to me for me to talk about it much now. So for a few fun memories of the man instead and of course, from afar.

Circa 1979

The photo here is from the one time I met him, about 1979, when he came to read at Cleveland State. The Poetry Center Director was on leave and was coming to introduce him in the evening, but it was my job to see that he was picked up at the airport and delivered there the next morning and that he was fed and accompanied or left alone when he needed to be.

I had read his amazing book Field Work by then and a packet of poems handed out to students which contained his poem "Digging," which ever since has been rooted in my heart. I think the poem resonates with anyone from a working class background who steps out of that world and into academia or whatever world where people do not carry lunchboxes. It asks, "How do I stay faithful to that world I come from of hard physical work, to claim it and not be ashamed of it and yet do the now more mental work I am being trained to do?" Only the poem says more and better. It begins with a gun and ends with a pen, surely the best job of turning a sword into a plowshare that any poet has ever achieved in 31 lines, and certainly I got it without a lot of explication, as our Cleveland State students did, too, and they came out en masse to hear him at that evening reading-- as did half the Irish-American population of Cleveland and the writing and reading community of Cleveland.

But before the reading, there was dinner with a group of poets who took Heaney to The Parthenon, the old (and I do mean old, and now gone) Greek restaurant down the street from C.S.U. where the flaming sakanaki was the best I ever had and did not come with the waiter shouting "opa," just a flame and a huge squirt of lemon. We ordered lots of saganaki and retsina and rodidas and platters of wonderful lamb and moussaka. Heaney seemed to really be enjoying himself, even though he was very tired, especially when a wedding party in the next room started smashing plates, and he got up to watch.

After dinner, we sauntered the six blocks down the street, early for the reading and thank goodness because the aforementioned mass of students, Irish-Americans, and other citizens had filled and overflowed the lecture hall we had chosen. Security showed up, found us an even bigger lecture hall, and there was a parade through the building to it, and even then, people had to squeeze, sitting on steps and standing around the edge of the room. (And I sat there praying no fire marshal showed up.) It was such a damned fine reading, and if you have never heard Heaney read, please go to the two links I have posted above, or any link of Heaney reading. He has always been one to give very brief, but very meaningful intros to his poems, and my favorite story that he told was about going back to his grade school, where the nuns had prepared the children to recite, in chorus, his poem "Death of a Naturalist." He held his breath as they got closer and closer to the line,  "Some sat/ Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting," wondering what the nuns would have them do with that word, "farting"-- would they skip it?  Surely they would never let the children say it. And then it came: "Some sat/ Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads darting." He then read it to us with all its farting, with relish, already the king of language, long before his Nobel prize.

(More recently, about his poem "At a Potato Digging,"  he noted that a critic, "once described me (to my face) as 'laureate of the root vegetable.'")

But his best witticism came the next morning, when poet Bob McDonough drove him to the airport and groggily clutching coffee, he mentioned that he was tired to the bone, was giving something like 10 readings in 8 days or 8 readings in 10 days in 10 cities, in order to pay for a sports car, and we were the next to the last just one more to go.  Still he smiled and waved good-bye to Bob, saying, "Well, I am off to simulate real life." 

Circa 2000-2002

During these years, I was living in three cities: Findlay, Ohio (where my job was), St. Cloud, MN (where my sister struggled and wrestled with and defied and died of cancer), and Boston, MA (where my husband had taken a new job). At least once a month I was flying out of some way-off terminal of Logan Airport, and it seemed that nearly as often, Heaney was flying out there too. I never spoke to him, just nodded in recognition and in leaving him alone, and he nodded back.

One day, when he got a bagel and then boarded, I said to the women in the snack bar, "Do you know that that man you just waited on is a Nobel Prize winner?" They looked up and said with some real enthusiasm, "Oh, really? In what?"

"Poetry!" I said with the same enthusiasm, only to see their faces fall.

"Oh," they said in real disappointment. What would have thrilled them? Physics??


If the two airport workers didn't appreciate Heaney's presence in Boston, I think it is fair to say that that most Irish of U.S. cities, where he taught for over two decades, did appreciate him. (That is to say, Boston-- okay, really he taught in Cambridge, but we won't be splitting neighborhoods just now.) I moved there late
in 2002, after my sister's death, and I myself ran out to appreciate him whenever he was giving a reading, as he was one particularly memorable reading in Sanders Hall, along with several other poets (Jorie Graham, Robert Pinsky, et. al.), for what has always seemed a perpetual fundraiser to keep Grolier's Poetry Bookstore from going under. Fact is, the packed hall was mostly there to hear Heaney, so as the time approached, and we saw he wasn't there, a deep disappointment crept in. And then it was announced that he had had to make a sudden trip back to Ireland because the roof of his house was leaking or caved in or some such disaster, and as poet Julia Lisella said yesterday on Facebook, "I liked thinking about him choosing the roof over his family's head over the roof over ours there at the Sanders Theater waiting for him!" 

March 7, 2013

This past spring, I heard Heaney for the last time, though of course I didn't know it then. He seemed hale enough, as though fully recovered from his 2006 stroke. It was a wonderful reading because it wasn't really a reading but a "conversation," between Heaney and Derek Walcott, moderated by Roseanna Warren,  interspersed with their reading poems while seated in big comfortable chairs onstage. Heaney's voice was strong, as was the sense that he was, as always, as the N.Y.Times has said,
"consumed with morality." The podcast of this reading has been suddenly blocked from the AWP website, and I hope they make it available again soon because it was a
mighty moment, about which, as his own poem says:

... we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened. ("Clearances")

That's how I am feeling about Heaney this weekend.  There is a big open space where he once was. But look, in the clearances, he has left us all this, that keeps opening and opening: the poems, the translations, the essays, his asides and witticisms, the  music of language and languages, the strong sense that the poet is, in his own words, "...on the side of undeceiving the world. It means being vigilant in the public realm. But you can go further still and say that poetry tries to help you to be a truer, purer, wholer being.”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you,Diane!(I heard him read in 2006 at University of Kentucky and have been remembering the last few days.)