Seamus Heaney and Me   3 comments

Irish poet, Nobel Prize winner, essayist and translator Seamus Heaney died earlier today in Dublin at 74.  More than once I’ve quoted Heaney on this blog, not least because his work is accessible without being Hallmark-y, literate but not stuffy, and redolent of earth and earthy intelligence.  In other words, delightfully Druidical.  Rather than go all lit-critic here, I’ll give a tribute in the form of a modest personal anecdote. If I need any justification, we’re both farmers’ sons.

heaney2In January 1984 Heaney offered a 7:00 pm reading and book-signing as part of the long-running Brockport Writers Forum at the College of Brockport, a school that’s part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.  I mention this because at the time I held an unhealthy disdain for the SUNY schools.  They weren’t Ivies, and though a farmer’s son, I cultivated a decided snobbery that looks simply ludicrous now.  I also didn’t know then about the caliber of writers who read at the Forum.  Nevertheless a SUNY school reading series was sponsoring a poet I greatly admired, so there was nothing for it but to sidestep my arrogance if I wanted to hear him.  (Picture him nearly three decades younger, with graying rather than white hair.)

I recall the date in part because that winter I was in my mid-20s, between schools, waiting to hear on college applications, and back to working on my dad’s dairy farm, a hard though sane life I’d largely escaped during my undergrad years.  Our herd of some fifty Holsteins meant we were a “family farm” which only signifies that everyone in the family has to chip in for the farmer to make a go of it at all.  That winter day was typical Western New York January:  cold, blustery, with a spatter of snow gusting through a short gray Wednesday a scant month past the solstice and the shortest day.  I’d have to leave after evening milking if I wanted to attend at all.  The drive sounds easy enough, some 40 miles almost due north of us, and all on decent paved roads, but what with winter, night and traffic, that meant over an hour, if I was lucky.

Southern Wisconsin Hit By Major BlizzardIn spite of a late start milking, and the worsening weather, I determined to go, cursing slow drivers most of the way.  By the time I arrived, found campus parking and located the venue, the reading had ended.  It was standing room only in the auditorium, so I leaned against the wall at the back.  The moderator was thanking Heaney, who had moved to a cafeteria lunch table set up down front for the signing.  With no time to change before I left home, I was still dressed in work pants, steel-toed boots (anyone casually stepped on by a half-ton cow gets the why), stained winter jacket and stocking hat — still fragrant of cows, corn silage and manure.

I debated whether it would be worth staying.  I’d brought with me a worn paperback of Heaney’s Selected Poems, though I’m not usually one to collect author signatures.  But the crowd was thinning rapidly because of the deteriorating weather, so I made up my mind to salvage something from the trip.  By the time I joined the signing line against the mostly departing crowd, I held a spot near the end.  From what I could see of him as we slowly inched forward, Heaney looked tired, a half-finished bottle of whiskey at his elbow.  When I finally stood before him, though, he must have caught a whiff of barn on me.  He raised his head, took my measure, his gaze sharpening, and grinned at me, then wordlessly signed with a flourish.  At that moment and after, the trip was worth it, not because I got his signature, but because we had connected, however briefly.  It was worth it because it forms part of my own vocation as poet.  Many are called, but few are chosen.  But still, many are called.

I like to think he took my presence as a compliment, a plowboy poetry-reader come to hear the poet-speaker for our human tribe, the stamp of farm still on my clothes.  I like to think of him doing something similar as a boy or young man.  I like to think in a small way my presence mirrored what he wrote with and about: words as part of this world of darkness and light, of sky and soil and storms and time, of blood stirring at these things as we walk through them all our days.

And that’s it, except of course it’s never finished till breath is.  The story is more about me than Heaney, but I remember the day and the details because of Heaney, so they belong at least a little to him too, to his memory, now.  I’ll atone for the self-indulgence here; Heaney deserves the last words — these, from his poem “Postscript,” cited in full:

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. 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.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images:  Heaney; barn in winter.

Updated 1:31 pm 30 Aug 13

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Posted 30 August 2013 by adruidway in Druidry, poetry, Seamus Heaney, writing

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3 responses to “Seamus Heaney and Me

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  1. Reblogged this on Awen's Light Grove.

  2. Really like reading your story here this morning. I’m busy reading his ‘Beowulf’ interpretation. 🙂 Thanks for sharing with the world.

  3. Thanks, Ken. I’ve used Heaney’s Beowulf in my high school classes — it’s our preferred translation at this point. And Heaney has done a lot to make poetry accessible and still literate.

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