Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney


"I rhyme
 To see myself, to set the darkness echoing"


In 1997, while sitting in a crowded Dublin church awaiting the start of my friend's wedding, I leaned over to fix a disobedient strap on my new sandal and accidentally head-butted the man in front of me.  When he turned around to see who had smacked his skull, I greeted him with a dumbfounded stare.

On that day, Seamus Heaney was the only Nobel Prize winner I had ever met.  He'd been honored with the award in 1995 and he's likely to remain the only Nobel recipient I will ever literally go head to head with in a church or anywhere else.

Later that night, while the reception marquee slowly sunk into the rain-soaked lawn of the bride's family estate, people danced and drank and Seamus Heaney held court at his table.  As I was sitting across from him, he heard my American accent and asked me where I was from.   When I said I was a native of Missoula, Montana he inhaled from his cigar, stared for a moment at the smoke, and then recited from memory this Robert Bly poem about my beloved hometown:


IN A TRAIN
There has been a light snow.
Dark car tracks move in and out of the darkness.
I stare at the train window marked with soft dust.
I have awakened at Missoula, Montana, utterly happy. 

With his rich Derry accent and deep voice humming through each word, everything around me dissolved. I forgot to breathe, I babbled a series of "thank you's", and then I took a long drink of Guinness.  It was my 27th birthday.  I had no idea it would be so special.   

I've had a crush on Seamus Heaney ever since.


He was a poet who gave private moments power and reminded his readers that history is always personal.

On Tuesday I will begin teaching a class of 12th grade Literature students selected poems from Heaney's remarkable body of work. Having led classes through the study of his intimate sonnets and some of his longer and more political pieces for almost a decade, I am often astonished at how fully his words resonate with teenagers.  When he critiques tribalism, teens understand the real implications of inherited animosities and when he links childish imagination to adult longing they recognize the nostalgia that comes with aging.  

Even a difficult poem like "Personal Helicon", one that requires a bit of research and explanation, opens itself up to 9th graders who sometimes want to believe that poetry is beyond them.  It is my favorite poem, and this is a link to Heaney's lovely reading of it: http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/audio/heaney/personal_helicon.mp3

A few years after my momentous birthday celebration, I read the poem "Scaffolding" at a different wedding.  It's a gentle tribute to the sovereign power of love:
Masons, when they start upon a building,

Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,

Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done

Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be

Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall

Confident that we have built our wall.


"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun"
Seamus Heaney
April 13, 1939 - August 30, 2013



1 comment:

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