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Seamus Heaney: A Tribute by Karl Kirchwey

September 1, 2013
Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney in the AAR cortile in May 2013
Seamus Heaney with Director Christopher S. Celenza
Seamus Heaney at the podium
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Seamus Heaney, who died in Dublin on Friday at the age of 74, was the William B. Hart Poet-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome for three weeks in May of this year. In addition to being a major poet writing in English, he was a loyal friend to many other poets, including this one. Seamus was blessed, not only with a huge poetic gift, but also with a deep humanity and maturity. The seriousness with which he took his craft (in his own evolution, he spoke of “earning the right to be a poet”) meant that the backbiting and power games that characterize some of the impoverished cantons of contemporary poetry were completely alien to him. His sights were set elsewhere, his masters were Vergil and Dante, and his hooded dark gaze and his sumptuous brogue always shamed you out of any petty grievance you might have. His courage could be felt, both in national terms—his refusal to be co-opted, as a poet, by the politics of his tormented country—and in personal ones, as he made his way back, slowly and with the determined help of his wife Marie and his family, from a major stroke some years ago. His poem “Miracle” refracts his own experience through the Gospel story of the healing of the paralytic, and it is completely characteristic of Seamus’ human depth that the focus is not on the patient, but on those who help him:

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in…

I knew Seamus first in my capacity as Director of the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York, where he read from his work throughout his career. One of my most vivid memories is of the staged reading of Seamus’ translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes (called The Cure At Troy) that we presented in the Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall on St. Patrick’s Day in 1993. Seamus’ friend, the poet and playwright Derek Walcott, was directing, and a cast of actors was assembled from as far away as California and Ireland. A major spring blizzard engulfed the northeastern United States just in time to knock all plans for the play awry, but in spite of this the show went on, with Irish pipes and drums, with Roscoe Lee Browne, as the wounded Greek archer and hero, howling with pain and shambling about the stage in an old raincoat, and with a dinner reception afterwards at an Irish steakhouse where the Bushmills flowed freely. Throughout the vicissitudes of the theater, Seamus never lost his sense of humor. And the lines of his play, which so brilliantly redirects Sophocles’ myth of injustice, grudge-bearing and forgiveness into the context of contemporary Ireland, are still echoing, I think, in that oak-panelled hall:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and they get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

Seamus read those lines in the courtyard of the McKim, Mead and White building in May, during an event that had been threatened by rain but was a triumph, the culmination of his visit to the AAR. Weeks before his arrival in Rome, the demands for his time and his attention began to come in, and he navigated all of them with patience and grace, obliging as many people as he could. I listed to Seamus read his work several times, during those weeks in Rome—at the Casa delle Letterature, at the home of the Irish Ambassador to Italy, and finally at the AAR—and each time was reminded of how crucial his poems have been to my own understanding of what poetry can do and how life can be felt and understood. I listened as Seamus was interviewed more than once. Like any experienced public figure, he had certain conversational touchstones, certain repeating mottoes; but in his case, they seem unforgettable rather than ephemeral. “The work of art is finished and steady, a response and a resistance to desolation,” he said. He quoted his great predecessor W.B. Yeats to the effect that “I have tried to hold in a single thought reality and justice.” He remarked that “Language in Ireland is solidified history.” And when asked whether or not he feared death, he responded, “I think literature has helped. Mythology has helped.” Seamus provided no easy answers about what role poetry could possibly have, in a violent world. On the one hand, he quoted the question posed by the poet Czeslaw Milosz, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland: “What is poetry that does not save nations or people?” And Milosz’s answer to this was “The song of drunkards.” For Milosz, confronted with the atrocities of the twentieth century, poetry had to have a political dimension. On the other hand, Seamus also quoted his friend Joseph Brodsky, exiled as a “social parasite” from the Soviet Union, who declared that “If art teaches us anything, it is that the human condition is private.” What Brodsky meant was that, given a totalitarian state, the most important thing about poetry is not its public voice, but its ability to articulate the individual consciousness. For Seamus, I think this difficult balance between public and private was crucial to poetry; and in his own work, it is what makes him a great poet.

During that reading in the McKim, Mead and White courtyard, Seamus presented a generous retrospective of his work, and in fact the poems artfully traced the evolution of consciousness and writing itself, from childhood through maturity, in sacred, secular and mythic terms. The jasmine was in flower on the walls of the building, and sparrows were noisy inside that jasmine. Arriving at a line in one of his poems that mentions birdsong, Seamus just held up his arm for a moment in silence. Nature itself, you see, was in concert with this poet. I will always cherish that image of Seamus, as I will always feel the last lines of the last poem he read, entitled “Postscript” and describing a car trip in the west of Ireland, which responds both to Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole” and to the violence of Yeats’ other swan poem, about Leda:

                          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.

Seamus Heaney caught our hearts off guard; he blew them open. That is what poetry can do.