Friday, August 30, 2013

Remembering Seamus Heaney

Three candles that illumine every darkness: truth, nature, knowledge. —Old Irish triad

"Once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme."
                  —Seamus Heaney

I first met Seamus in the early 1980s. I heard him read on KPFA FM—I never could get decent radio signal in Forestville—and I turned it on, only to hear his sonorous voice.

I hopped into my truck (code name: Blue Lazarus) and drove on down to SF (or was it Berkeley?) but the only seat left in the house was right in the front row—and so I sat in it, next to a woman. She patted the seat next to her—said sit. It was still warm.

We got to chatting, she said she was an Irish schoolteacher. I gave her a CPITS poetry book from my CAC poetry residency in Santa Rosa. And so the penny eventually dropped, it was Mairi, his wife. I was sitting in Seamus's recently vacated seat, it was the hot seat. Not many can claim their seat was warmed by the heat of Seamus' bum.

Thus began a friendship that spanned decades—he once sent me a letter from Adams House, Harvard—praising my voice, my long line. Gawd only know what I sent him. A letter I treasured. It gave me hope during a time when no one would publish my work. Too long, too personal, too difficult.

Our paths crossed on myriad occasions. I ran into Seamus again at the Avenali Lecture Berkekey—he always remembered me. Always chatted—sometimes in Irish, as he signed my latest collection of books.

Then I got to spend some time with Seamus at Poetry International encampment during the Summer Solstice in Rotterdam. I told him my grandmother was a Heaney, he laughed, called me coozin, giving me a big smacker. We sang Irish songs, lifted our glasses high.

Most memorable moment: we were stuck in an elevator between floors, a gaggle of poets from around the world—mostly African poets. Seamus  proclaimed that his whiskey flask had sprung a leak, and so we all drank tots from the lid and when it was done, we sang songs and proclaimed ourselves a collective noun. I said: a Genius of Poets. He repeated: almost on the same breath: a Genius of Poets. And so we were, and me, the only woman.

I read that Ted Hughes's Lupercal, spurred Heaney on to write poetry. "Suddenly, the matter of contemporary poetry was the material of my own life." Heaney once said to Sameer Rahim, that "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.” I am reminded of what Seamus said in an interview, "Each poet is alone with his or her chances at the end as much as at the beginning." – 1996 interview w/ Seamus Heaney

In August of 2006, Heaney suffered a stroke, he said that left him "babyish" and "on the brink." An interesting place to find oneself in poetry. When he was fitted with a heart monitor, Heaney joked, "Blessed are the pacemakers..."

At the end of November, after the memorial readings were done, I dreamt Seamus came to visit, I was sitting on his knee as he reminisced about life. When I grabbed my camera, to take a photo of him, it was full of sand. In this way, I knew he was truly gone. 

Irish President Michael D. Higgins said: " many rights organisations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience." Seamus lived like his poetry, upstanding, forthright, and generous. He was everyman's hero. It was a great honor to spend time with him in Berkeley, San Francisco, at the Marin Civic Center, and Poetry International in Rotterdam—and a few places in between. Seamus was always generous with his time, and always kind.

I didn't know those of us who went to see Famous Seamus every chance we got, were dubbed "Heaneyboppers" but I don't regret one moment of it. He was my lodestone, my candle of truth, my bearla—my government of the tongue.

After a fall outside a Dublin restaurant, Seamus entered hospital. The newspapers reported that while waiting for a medical procedure, he texted a last message to his wife, Mairi. Noli timere, “Do not be afraid,” minutes before he died. His famous last words, not quite written in stone, but close enough.

May he rest in poetry. Go ndéana Dia fáilte roimh Shéamus, ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.

What may have been Seamus Heaney's final poem, "In a Field," a "heartbreakingly prescient" reflection on the first world war, has been published for the first time by the Guardian.

Seamus Heaney's last-known poem:

In a Field

And there I was in the middle of a field,
The furrows once called "scores' still with their gloss,
The tractor with its hoisted plough just gone
Snarling at an unexpected speed
Out on the road. Last of the jobs,
The windings had been ploughed, furrows turned
Three ply or four round each of the four sides
Of the breathing land, to mark it off
And out. Within that boundary now
Step the fleshy earth and follow
The long healed footprints of one who arrived
From nowhere, unfamiliar and de-mobbed,
In buttoned khaki and buffed army boots,
Bruising the turned-up acres of our back field
To stumble from the windings' magic ring
And take me by a hand to lead me back
Through the same old gate into the yard
Where everyone has suddenly appeared,
All standing waiting.

Conor Howard of Anna Livia Books made this hand-letter-set broadside and gave it to me. 

I don't recall going to the reading, but I have program & broadside.

"I ask a blessing by Sweeney's grave. His memory flutters in ny breast. His soul roosts in the tree of love. His body sinks in its clay nest."
               —Seamus Heaney

Review of Sweeney Astray, Time, 1984 (ending MIA)

I wasn't always good at getting my poetry books signed when I bought them, so more often than not, they were signed years later. Usually used, from Moe's Books, on Telegraph. Not quite first editiions. But close. As I didn't have the money to buy them new.

At the Marin reading, I introduced Neil O'Neil to Seamus, and they hit it off like a house afire, as Neil's family originally hailed from Omagh. Seamus signed a copy of my book to Neil. The deal was that Neil was to replace my copy. Never happened.

"When asked how it felt having his name added to the Irish Nobel pantheon featuring William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, Heaney responded: "It's like being a little foothill at the bottom of a mountain range. You hope you just live up to it. It's extraordinary."  TV News

Edward McGuire, 'Portrait of Seamus Heaney', 1974, Oil on canvas.
Commissioned by the Ulster Museum
I also brought my Irish History book that has a color print of a painting of a young raw-boned Seamus. He got a real kick out of signing that painting, and later, a classmate borrowed the book and never returned it. I mourn that loss. Somewhere out there, there is a signed copy of the Oxford irish History book, probably worth a bomb on eBay— if you find it, it's mine. I want it back.

Seamus was quite surprised to see this book .


Some clippings from my archives.

Heaney was a Harvard professor 1981-97 & 
Poet in Residence 1988-2006.

A review of The Spirit Level by Richard Tilinghast
 July 21, 1996  (what paper?)

Note bene: I scanned all these book covers from my collection after I heard the news he's died, but I could never bear to post them until now Feb. 15, 2015. Only now, am I able to separate myself from the grief. And give wing to these bits of prose penned in his honor. I participated in two memorial readings for Seamus, with Bob Hass and others at UC Berkeley (Nov 5?, and another memorial reading for the Irish Historical Society in San Francisco, at the Mechanic's Institute on November 19, 2013.

The UC Berkeley reading on October 1st, was held in the hall of the Maude Fife Room as thieves had come in the night to steal copper wire from the underground electrical vaults, and the furnaces were stuck on maximum, roaring like a crematorium, so we had to set up in the hall, with the windows open. We were like rowers on Beowulf's ship, rowers six deep across, oaring his words into the indigo sky.

Seamus Heaney Tribute 2013 The Maude Fife Room temperature was 110°—due to the electrical eruption this AM at UC Berkeley, a real Dante's Inferno. So we held a tribute to Seamus Heaney in the hallway at Wheeler Hall, UC Berkeley—t'was like a longship cathedral of poetry. Perhaps it was the feast Hall, Herorot. Beowulf was invoked in both languages. Dante too. It was a real poetry roast. Heaney would've like that. Ta to Bob Hass & Christopher Miller for an abfab event. My camera battery died soon into the event so there are only a few photos, and none of the after party.
Irish Vice Council Kevin Byrne and Neil O'Neill
Dr. Robert Tracy (& my scarf).

Robert Hass

Seamus Heaney—the Berkeley Days Memorial Reading  Irish Literary and Historical Society of San Francisco. A reading I helped Tony Bucher organize; with Irish Consul Phillip Grant, VC Kevin Byrne, Berkeley professors Robert Tracy and Robert Hass, former US Poet Laureate. It was a full house and then some—with people sitting in the hall. What a great night. Most memorable line: Bob Hass said Seamus Heaney was fascinated by two things: Beat poetry & Esalen "You have to understand, that in Ireland, sex is in its infancy." He only went to Esalen once. Once was enough.

Phillip Grant, Irish Consul

I meant to rescan some of these images as the scanner kept helpfully cropping the images and there was nothing I could do to stop it. It's especially noticeable on the broadside. I finally had to reinstall the software, but by then I couldn't bring myself to revisit the images. So I'm posting them as is. Heaney memorabilia.I was feverishly promoting a memorial reading for Seamus in San Francisco, some of these quotes, I'm sorry to say, are orphans. Though I tried to document all my sources with weblinks, some are behind paywalls, especially the Irish TImes, and so I can't verify them.
Ireland's Nobel Laureate and revered poet, Seamus Heaney's works such as 'Death of a Naturalist' were admired all over the world but he continued to live in Ireland right up to his death. He has left behind a great legacy in Irish literature – RIP (Photo - Irish Times)


Seamus Heaney published 12 collections of poetry, several volumes of prose, plays, and translations, as well as spoken word CDs: 

Eleven Poems (1965)
Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Door into the Dark (1969)
Wintering Out (1972) 
North (1975)
Stations (1975)
Field Work (1979)
Selected Poems 1965-1975 (1980) Death of a Naturalist / Door Into the Dark / Wintering Out / North 
Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 (1980)
Station Island (1984)
The Government of the Tongue (1988)
New Selected Poems 1966–1987 (1990)
Seeing Things (1991) 
The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' 'Philoctetes' (1991)
The Spirit Level (1996)
Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 
Beowulf (translation, 1999)
Electric Light (2001)
The Poet & The Piper album with piper Liam O'Flynn (2003)
Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone (2004)
The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables (2004)
District and Circle (2006)
Seamus Heaney Collected Poems 15 disc album RTE (2008)
Human Chain (2010)

After I painstakingly compiled the above list, old school style, I found

1966: Death of a Naturalist, Faber & Faber
1969: Door into the Dark, Faber & Faber
1972: Wintering Out, Faber & Faber
1975: Stations, Ulsterman
1975: North, Faber & Faber
1979: Field Work, Faber & Faber
1984: Station Island, Faber & Faber
1987: The Haw Lantern, Faber & Faber
1991: Seeing Things, Faber & Faber
1996: The Spirit Level, Faber & Faber
2001: Electric Light, Faber & Faber
2006: District and Circle, Faber & Faber
2010: Human Chain, Faber & Faber
1983: Sweeney Astray: A version from the Irish, Field Day
1992: Sweeney's Flight (with Rachel Giese, photographer), Faber & Faber
1993: The Midnight Verdict: Translations from the Irish of Brian Merriman and from the Metamorphoses of Ovid, Gallery Press
1995: Laments, a cycle of Polish Renaissance elegies by Jan Kochanowski, translated with Stanisław Barańczak, Faber & Faber
1999: Beowulf, Faber & Faber
1999: Diary of One Who Vanished, a song cycle by Leoš Janáček of poems by Ozef Kalda, Faber & Faber
2002: Hallaig, Sorley MacLean Trust
2002: Arion, a poem by Alexander Pushkin, translated from the Russian, with a note by Olga Carlisle, Arion Press
2004: The Testament of Cresseid, Enitharmon Press
2004: Columcille The Scribe, The Royal Irish Academy
2009: The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables, Faber & Faber

Lectures & prose, see Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 (1980), The Government of the Tongue (1988), Salmugundi U of WI (1988), also Dennis O'Driscoll's book Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (2008.)

Songs of the Scribe (2011) album features old and new translations by Ní Uallacháin, Ciaran Carson and Seamus Heaney, Helen Davies on harp. Songs of the Scribe was inspired by the manuscripts of St. Gallen. The MS was carried to safety from Viking attack by St. Gall from Bangor, County Down.

My favorite 9th c. Old Irish cat poem, "Pangur Bán"

 "In order that human beings bring about the most radiant conditions for themselves to inhabit, it is essential that the vision of reality which poetry offers should be transformative, more than just a printout of the given circumstances of its time and place. The poet who would be most the poet has to attempt an act of writing that outstrips the conditions even as it observes them.

—from "Joy Or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin", W. D. Thomas Memorial Lecture delivered by Seamus Heaney at University College of Swansea on 18 January 1993.

 Seamus Heaney reading his own work—released by RTÉ to mark his 70th birthday, 13 April 2009, This Wiki page lists titles of all his recorded poems at bottom. 

The Poet & The Piper album by Seamus Heaney and piper Liam O'Flynn, with instrumental tracks and spoken poetry, was recorded in 2003. 


BBC News - Poet Seamus Heaney dies aged 74

Irish Poet Seamus Heaney Dies - The Two-Way - NPR

Nobel Prize winning poet Heaney dies - UTV Live News

Obituary- Heaney ‘the most important Irish poet since Yeats’ - Book News | Literature & Books Reviews & Headlines |The Irish Time - Fri, Aug 30, 2013  (now archived, paywall)

Poet Seamus Heaney dies -

Requiem for Seamus Heaney - Telegraph Sameer Rahim

Postscript- Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) - The New Yorker

Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74 -

Why Seamus Heaney’s last words weren’t the last laugh - Telegraph

Seamus Heaney celebrated by fellow poets - Telegraph   Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Edna O’Brien, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, Christopher Reid, Bernard O’Donoghue and Michael Longley... The Chieftans brought in the craic with bodhran, uillean pipes and fiddle

Poets and writers pay tribute to Seamus Heaney | MobyLives

Seamus Heaney- the Berkeley Days A poetry reading to commemorate Seamus Heaney and his days at UC Berkeley  November 19, 2013. (this was one of the events I helped organize in at the Mechanic's Institute in San Francisco. with Berkeley Professors Robert Tracy and former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass. I wrote: Wow, it was a full house and then some—with people sitting in the hall. What a great night. I'll post photos soon. Most memorable line: Bob Hass said Seamus Heaney was fascinated by two things: Beat poetry & Esalen "You have to understand, that in Ireland, sex is in its infancy." He only went to Esalen once. Once was enough.

Remembering a surprise visit from Seamus Heaney Poetry Foundation @PoetryFound

Seamus Heaney- A life of rhyme | Books | The Observer

Seamus Heaney (RIP) Reads "Death of a Naturalist" and His Nobel Lecture on the Power of Poetry | Brain Pickings

Postscript The Poetry Center at Smith College

Seamus Heaney —Wiki  Bill Clinton, former President of the United States, said: "Both his stunning work and his life were a gift to the world. His mind, heart, and his uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace...His wonderful work, like that of his fellow Irish Nobel Prize winners Shaw, Yeats, and Beckett, will be a lasting gift for all the world.

Seamus Heaney "Digging" - YouTube

11 Videos Of Seamus Heaney Reading His Poems Aloud

Seamus Heaney- his 10 best poems - Telegraph Death of a Naturalist, Requiem for the Croppies, Two Lorries, Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication, 1. Sunlight, 1. The Seed Cutters, The Tollund Man in Springtime, North, September 1969, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation

A Kite for Aibhín-

The Poet Crowned  


A Genius of Poets

Notes on Iona Hostel Poems

Anim Chara

Poetry International

posted/rev 2/16/2015

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