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Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, has died today. He was 74. 

The Guardian has some wonderful coverage--videos of Heaney reading his poetry, a slideshow of Heaney through the years, even a picture of the poet's "reading room" in his Dublin house's attic.

Here is an excerpt from "Casualty":

... that morning  
I was taken in his boat,  
The Screw purling, turning  
Indolent fathoms white,  
I tasted freedom with him.  
To get out early, haul  
Steadily off the bottom,  
Dispraise the catch, and smile  
As you find a rhythm  
Working you, slow mile by mile,  
Into your proper haunt  
Somewhere, well out, beyond...

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LIMBO

 

Fishermen at Ballyshannon 
Netted an infant last night 
Along with the salmon. 
An illegitimate spawning.

A small one thrown back 
To the waters. But I’m sure 
As she stood in the shallows 
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists 
Were dead as the gravel, 
He was a minnow with hooks 
Tearing her open.

She waded in under 
The sign of her cross. 
He was hauled in with the fish. 
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls 
Through some far briny zone. 
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed, 
Smart and cannot fish there.

--Seamus Heaney

 

The lines "Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun" were my first encounter with Heaney (probably like a lot of people) when I was assigned "Digging" from Death of a Naturalist as an undergrad. It was one of those moments when, as another instructor had said, you understand what literature is and does. What can I say - I was 19, maybe not much younger than Heaney was when he wrote it.   

 

He was wonderful.  RIP, Seamus.

His translation of Beowulf?  Wonderful.  Link to the bilingual edition:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0393320979/ref=rdr_ext_tmb

I'm not a modern poetry fan, but have always admired "St. Kevin and the Blackbird"; here's Heaney reading it: 

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xi7g8q_seamus-heaney-st-kevin-and-the-blackbird_creation

Sad -- I heard him read his Death of a Naturalist in Maynooth in 1966, met him at an IASIL conference in Kyoto in the 1990s and again at the opening of the Lafcadio Hearn library at the Irish Embassy in Tokyo -- a benign and generous presence 

 

His commencement address at Fordham in 1982 was delivered in verse.  Like every word he wrote, it's well worth your time: on Fordham's blog here. http://fordhamnotes.blogspot.com/2013/08/seamus-heaneys-verses-for-fordh...

and from his Nobel Prize Lecture, "Crediting Poetry:"

I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins for the intensity of his exclamations which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn't fully know I knew until I read him.

Beautiful stuff in the NYT this morning, including his picture on the front page, long obituary, article in Arts section.  Etc.

From the Francis X. Clines editorial:

 He exulted in his origins as a farm boy who savored the ring of the BBC weather forecast towns (“Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Shetland...”) as much as the family’s recitation of the Blessed Virgin’s litany (“Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted...”).

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/31/opinion/seamus-heaney-poet-of-the-sile...

 

Kevin Cullen's column---filled with wondrous language, great stories and keen insight---in the Boston Globe is worth reading in its entirety.  Here are some excerpts:

"I was auditing Helen Vendler’s class on Heaney’s poetry, and to this day I have no idea why Helen let me sit in. I was a Nieman Fellow, on a yearlong vacation at Harvard, and I think she, the greatest of critics of Heaney’s work, pitied me. When Heaney walked in, he eyed me warily. He knew me, the way spies know each other, having bumped into each other at strange times in strange places they’d prefer to deny." (emphasis added)

Cullen described having a drink with Heaney at a local pub:  "It was getting close to 7:30 that night in Cambridge 11 years ago. I was checking the clock. Seamus, as the Irish say, couldn’t be arsed. He was due for dinner with the Adams House masters, Sean and Judy Palfrey, and I knew there would be hell to pay if I delivered him late. Sean and Judy are not just pediatricians, working with some of the most vulnerable kids in Boston, they’re also my pals. I wasn’t going to diss them by keeping their distinguished guest at a bar around the corner all night.

But when I told the great man from Bellaghy it was time to go, he squinted up at the clock, nodded toward Laurence Hopkins, leaned into me and said, in that delicious south Derry sotto voce, “Ach, we’ll have one for the ditch, will we?”

And in conclusion:  "Seamus Heaney was very much like St. Kevin in that he held out his hands until the eggs that were his verses hatched, grew wings, and flew away, all over the world. He dared to leave the bog. He made words a weapon of wonder and tolerance. He walked on air against his better judgment."

So he was 15 minutes late."

Allow me to make your day:  set aside an hour and fifteen minutes to see a wonderful documentary, “Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous.”  RTE calls it “an intimate and original look at Seamus Heaney, the man and the artist. The film explores the key personal relationship in Heaney's life, that with his wife Marie, and follows him to Harvard, New York and London, to readings, signings and public interviews.”  Here’s the link:  http://www.rte.ie/player/us/show/10194512/