August 31, 2013

Three Encounters with the late Seamus Heaney

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                          

I heard Seamus Heaney three times over three decades. In each case, we briefly spoke afterwards. The first was in about 1972, when he came to the University of Minnesota to give a well-attended reading. He was in his early thirties and had recently become a poet full-time. He seemed modest and a little amazed at his reception on the American poetry reading circuit. I was a graduate student then, not so much younger than he, and we spoke only briefly in a relaxed moment at the reception afterwards. It was already clear then that he had a marvelous ear and a remarkable facility. 

Young Seamus Heaney

The second encounter was about six years later, at a college in upstate New York, where I was teaching. By this time he was far more famous as a poet and more polished, really elegant, as a public speaker. He had also begun to lecture on famous predecessors. The one I heard compared Yeats and Eliot, focusing on how they described the process of writing poetry. The gist of it was that while Eliot seemed more academic and even added footnotes in some poems, he nevertheless seemed to experience the act of creation as a flow that was always temporary. These outpourings might be reworked, of course, but the initial surge of creativity was crucial. In contrast, Heaney argued, Yeats described writing poetry as hard work, like getting down on your marrow bones to scrub floors or like breaking stones. For him, evidently, writing was a craft and a struggle.

I recall this lecture not least because it showed how deeply Heaney was interested in two of the greatest poets of the first half of the twentieth century. In the talk he made no immodest comparisons between himself and either of the poets he was discussing. Nor on that occasion did he wish to be drawn out on his own methods of composition. My sense then was that his own experience of writing was more like Eliot's. This was later confirmed by something he said later in life: "The gift of writing is to be self-forgetful, to get a surge of inner life or inner supply or unexpected sense of empowerment, to be afloat, to be out of yourself." 

We spoke for a few minutes. I did not expect him to remember me, but he fondly recalled Chester Anderson, who had invited him to Minneapolis, and who was one of the leading scholars on James Joyce and modern Irish literature. (I could tell him that all was well with Professor Anderson, who had held the reception for Heaney where I first met him.)

The third and last time I heard him was in Copenhagen, when I was on the faculty at the university there. He was friends with one of my older colleagues, a man who had memorized thousands of lines of poetry. He has passed away since then, and he cannot present whatever might be his version of this story. Therefore I will not give his name.

I came early to the poetry reading, and ran into my older colleague and Heaney in a nook below stairs. They had an open wine bottle, and I was immediately pressed to take a plastic cup and help myself. I did so, and listened to their conversation, which was a mix of memories of various people and appropriate lines of poetry that they called to mind. It was not showing off in the least, but playful, occasionally a little competitive, and quite funny. But after twenty years I cannot recall the details.

As the time for the reading drew near, I went up the stairs to the hall, in order to get a decent seat. Heaney had not yet won the Nobel Prize, but it seemed obvious that he was a very plausible candidate. I was in time to secure a good spot and then waited. Eventually, Heaney arrived, alone. He  sat down and waited. The clock moved well beyond the appointed hour. As my colleague did not come, he finally went up to the podium, looked out at the crowd and said, "Well I suppose you all know who I am and that this is a poetry reading, so I may as well begin. No introduction is needed, surely."  He then began to read. After two or three poems, my colleague rushed in, a bit red in the face.

"Seamus. What are you doing? I have to give my introduction." The crowd tittered and had to restrain itself from laughing.

"Oh, sit down," Heaney said jovially, waving him toward a seat, "I am well started now."

"What about the introduction?"

"You can give it afterwards." Which is what he did. It was a bit incoherent (for the wine had taken full effect!) and totally unnecessary. But Seamus seemed to enjoy it all the more for that. When the "introduction" was over, they went off to dinner.

In all three of these encounters. I found Seamus Heaney to be an unpretentious, warm man. He was brilliant, of course, and far more able than most poets at presenting his work to readers. His passing is a loss to the literature of the world, and also (as sometimes is not the case) a great human loss. I wish I had heard him more often.