Posts Tagged ‘Seamus Heaney’

Seamus Heaney’s last days: “a moment of changing direction … a movement of gratitude to the people who helped him.”

Monday, September 30th, 2019
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John Deane (Photo: Mossy Carey)

We’ve posted on the seminal conference at Loyola University in Chicago last week here and here. This is our final installment. The Irish poet and novelist John Deane, founder of Poetry Ireland and The Poetry Ireland Review spoke movingly, eloquently of his friend and fellow countryman, the Nobel poet Seamus Heaney. (We’ve written about him before, here and here and here.) He described his eminent colleague’s crisis of faith and final days in 2013. He has allowed us to share an excerpt from his essay in the April 2019 issue of Intercom Magazine:

In the collection Human Chain, he reflects on the stroke he has suffered and how he was helped by others; it is a poem where he uses that same metaphor of the palsied man lowered through the roof. Heaney had suffered a severe stroke and this poem uses the metaphor – not as a spiritual poem, not an act of faith, Heaney insisted, but a moment of changing direction in one’s life – as a movement of gratitude to the people who helped him. There is continuum of perspective in the poem, “Miracle”, and a placing of the work on the ground of his early Christian awareness: “Not the one who takes up his bed and walks / But the ones who have known him all along / And carry him in —” The reader, or hearer, of this poem is not urged towards belief in miracles, but towards wonder at the kindness of the people who brought him to the ambulance when he needed them.

“A wonder at the kindness of the people…”

When I asked Seamus Heaney if he might write a poem for the issue of Poetry Ireland Review I was planning, seeking new work from poets I knew that might offer a personal answer to the question of what the personal Christ meant to them, (“Who do you say that I am?”) he answered enthusiastically: “I will definitely keep the project in mind. It’s quite a commission, a test of truth and art, but one worth risking.” Eventually he sent me “The Latecomers”. It reads, to me, as a poem in which Heaney sees himself, not as the palsied man, nor as the helpers, but as Christ himself, surrounded by the needy who press around seeking help and healing. Seamus was then constantly being badgered for signatures, for readings, for statements. The poem is written from Christ’s perspective and I will quote it in full:

The Latecomers

He saw them come, then halt behind the crowd
That wailed and plucked and ringed him, and was glad
They kept their distance. Hedged on every side,

Harried and responsive to their need,
Each hand that stretched, each brief hysteric squeal –
However he assisted and paid heed,

A sudden blank letdown was what he’d feel
Unmanning him when he met the pain of loss
In the eyes of those his reach had failed to bless.

And so he was relieved the newcomers
Had now discovered they’d arrived too late
And gone away. Until he hears them, climbers

On the roof, a sound of tiles being shifted,
The treble scrape of terra cotta lifted
And a paralytic on his pallet

Lowered like a corpse into a grave.
Exhaustion and the imperatives of love
Vied in him. To judge, instruct, reprove,

And ease them body and soul.
Not to abandon but to lay on hands.
Make time. Make whole. Forgive.

It is a remarkable piece, and I hoped it signalled a new certainty and confidence in Heaney. In a book just published (He Held Radical Light, 2018), the former editor of Poetry Chicago, Christian Wiman, a powerful poet in his own right, tells of a reading Seamus gave, one of his last, in Chicago. He tells how he “met Seamus Heaney in person only once”, at a dinner given after that reading. They sat together and Seamus mentioned he had been reading the proofs of Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss, where Wiman struggles with suffering and faith. Wiman was moved to know he was being read. Later in the dinner, “and in the middle of a conversation that had nothing whatsoever to do with religious faith, he leaned over to me and said – very quietly, he seemed frail to me – that he felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged.” Wiman felt unable to respond properly, but the moment is highly significant. I would hold that that “new dispensation” in faith is already in place, based on a Christian cosmology and catholicity, and an acceptance of the developments in faith demanded by the fact of evolution. …There is one God; there are as many ways to the love of God as there are individuals. A poet with Seamus Heaney’s intellect, imagination and great generosity of spirit, cannot be confined within the limited and limiting borders of dogma and ritual. His is a rich and, I would assert, a holy spirit.

Seamus Heaney and a toddler who “blew the heart wide open.”

Friday, August 16th, 2019
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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 … 

Those are the opening lines of the Irish Nobel poet Seamus Heaney‘s “Postscript.” It was the subject of an email sent to me by Dartmouth English Professor James Heffernan a few days ago:

Dear Cynthia,

Having tracked down your email address, I write to follow up on my tweeted response to the story of your brief correspondence with Seamus Heaney in your blog—evidently something you posted some time ago, though I just caught up with it.

I first encountered Seamus in (I think) the mid-90s, when he came to Dartmouth – a short hop from Harvard, where he was then teaching for regular stints each year. Besides reading his poetry, he gave a thoroughly captivating lecture on the first chapter of Ulysses, which I heard with particular interest since I was then leading a seminar on it.

A few years later, in (I think) the summer of 1998, I met him at a Wordsworth conference in the English Lake District. When I told him how much I had enjoyed his lecture on Ulysses, he threw back his head and called it a “ludicrous” performance, thus disclaiming his right to say anything about Joyce for lack of professional credentials—or something like that. But not long after, when I read his essay on Brian Merriman’s “Midnight Court” in The Redress of Poetry, I was so struck by the resemblance between Merriman’s poem and Molly’s monologue that I wrote an essay on the two that appeared in James Joyce Quarterly (Summer 2004). When I sent it to Seamus with thanks, he replied cordially.

Discussing “Ulysses” at Dartmouth

But all that is background to his postcard, which came in response to a letter of mine about my son Andrew and his daughter Kate. In late 2005, as I recall, Andrew sent me an email saying that just after he had read aloud Heaney’s “Postscript” to his daughter Kate, he was surprised to find that she had memorized nearly all of it and recited it back to him. When I wrote to Seamus about this and mentioned that Kate was (then) two-and-a-half years old, he replied by postcard: “Kate Heffernan blows the heart wide open. The poetic line is alive and well, in ear and ancestry.”

In every way, he was truly a marvelous man.

He was indeed. And the toddler was indeed precocious. The marvelous poem ends this way:

…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.

Read the whole thing here. Or listen to the Irish poet (we’ve written about him here and here and here) read it himself below.

Partying with Walcott, Heaney, Brodsky: “I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar.”

Friday, December 1st, 2017
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Could he have found a big enough jar?

I never met Nobel poet Derek Walcott – but Sven Birkerts did, and he writes a marvelous, ebullient essay about Walcott and his sidekicks and fellow Nobel poet laureates, Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky, “Long Tables, Open Bottles, and Smoke” over at Lithub.

Sven Birkerts met the Caribbean poet in 1981 at Boston University. Walcott was allowing non-students to audit his poetry seminar, and Birkerts jumped at the opportunity. It sounds a lot like Joseph Brodsky’s class back in Ann Arbor, except for the locale with its associations:

“We met in #222, the same second-floor room on Bay State road where Robert Lowell had taught his now-legendary seminar that included, among others, young poets George Starbuck, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Derek was pleased by the association and often invoked his old mentor “Cal.” Our class, which I audited for two years, had a loose free-associational format, like nothing I’d experienced—at least not before I met Joseph back in Ann Arbor. Was this how poets did it? It seemed radical and right, such a change from the syllabus-driven proceedings I’d known as an undergrad. In these sessions, a poem would be passed around—a ballad, something by Thomas Hardy or Elizabeth Bishop, say—like a specimen we could study, or, more flatteringly, like a melody handed off to a group of musicians to see what might happen. Meanings were not at issue—not in any conventional way. The conversations turned on rhythm, rhyme, cadence: the elements we came to see as primary to meaning.”

And the parties were unforgettable:

A judicious, sardonic rejoinder…

What a delight it was to see these three utterly distinctive looking individuals together at a party! And it seems, looking back, that there were parties all the time. Long tables, open bottles, and smoke. God, how people smoked in 1981—Joseph with his L&M’s (“Wystan smoked these”), Derek with filterless Pall Malls, Seamus with his Dunhills. And everyone gathered around them doing the same. If the reader now expects accounts of high literary seriousness, however, she will be disappointed. These gatherings were about play. They were exercises in comic brinksmanship. Who would pull off the night’s best line, the funniest story; which of the three would most quickly reduce the other two to convulsions? Those of us lucky enough to be at the table barely got a word in. If we had any function, it was to keep things going, to prompt. A question, a compliment—it didn’t matter, anything could be a trigger. Joseph was usually first out of the box with some dark jibe, which would inevitably set Derek into volatile contortions, releasing his extraordinary laugh, a full-body explosion. It would then fall to Seamus to offer the judicious sardonic rejoinder. I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar. My stomach hurt from laughing. I lay in bed, my head spinning from combined excesses, but also with the feeling that the world was, as Frost had it, “the right place for love.”

A full-body explosion

So much life – and all three are dead now. One poet mentioned in the article is most happily alive. I was pleased that Walcott loved Adam Zagajewski‘s “Going to Lvov,” and in a paragraph that makes me envious (I would not have put it this way, but I wish I had), he writes: “Derek’s reasons for adoring it are immediately clear. Zagajewski is writing directly in what I think of as the key of Walcott—and Brodsky—moving forward by the same logic of transformations, assuming the same coded equivalences between the things of the world and the words with which they are transmitted. Here the poet plays with such likeness directly, joining in our minds the visual punctuation of the Russian ‘soft sign’ and the sibilance that calls up the movement of water.”

And I couldn’t agree with him more when he reaches this conclusion: “These, I think, were the best years—before the Nobel Prizes. Say what you will, the feeling in a room changes when a certified Nobelist is present, never mind two or three. There is, of course, the overt or conspicuously concealed regard of the non-Nobelists present; and then the deft but still obvious efforts of the laureates not to be acting as eminences. It’s true, of course, that the poets were already known and honored before then, but somehow their earlier celebrity energized much more than it constrained.”

Read the whole exuberant essay here. Oh, and before I forget, check out his two-hour conversation on technology, books, and life over at the “Virtual Memories Show” here. Sample quote: “When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”

Zbigniew Herbert, Vasily Grossman, and “a small kernel of human kindness”

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016
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grossman

Grossman saw it all firsthand in the Red Army.

Many of you may remember my post some weeks ago on Vasily GrossmanLife and Fate (here). If you read the whole excerpt, you may wonder what becomes of Ikonnikov, the Tolstoyan Russian prisoner in a German concentration camp, who refuses to pour cement for a gas chamber.

He dies, of course. But in his last scribblings, he maintains that “Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.” He explains:

“My faith has been tempered in Hell. My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.

herbert

Shouldering a lot.

“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

As I was reading those words, I remembered something very similar from Warsaw poet Zbigniew Herbert – a writer who, as Seamus Heaney said, “shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility.” In his essay, “The Mercy of the Executioner,” Herbert describes the execution of the statesman Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, who had “defended his honor rather than his life” at trial:

When they brought in the condemned man, the crowd fell silent. Van Oldenbarnevelt was hurrying toward death: ‘What you must do, do it fast,’ he urged the executors of the verdict.

Van Oldenbarnevelt

A crumb of helpless goodness for him.

The something happened that went far beyond the ritual of execution, beyond the procedure of any known execution. The executioner led the condemned man to a spot where the sunlight was falling and said, ‘Here, Your Honour, you will have sun on your face.’ …

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s executioner broke the rules of the game, left his role, and, what is more, violated the principles of professional ethics. Why did he do it? Certainly it was an impulse of the heart. But didn’t the condemned man, who was stripped of all earthly glory, perceive derision in it? After all, it is indifferent to those who are leaving for ever whether they die in the sun, in shadow, or the darkness of night. The executioner, artisan of death, became an ambiguous figure filled with potential meaning when to the condemned man – in his last moment – he threw a crumb of helpless goodness.

Seamus Heaney, Zbigniew Herbert, and Apollo in one evening…

Monday, September 15th, 2014
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herbert

In English, s’il vous plaît…

A Polish friend and blogger, Artur Sebastian Rosman, sent me this youtube clip of the Irish Nobel poet Seamus Heaney reading the poems of Zbigniew Herbert. We’ve written about Seamus here and here and here, and Herbert here and here and here – and my visit with Herbert’s cat Szu-Szu in Warsaw is discussed here.

Artur considers Herbert’s satirical poem about labor conditions in Poland during the 1960s, “Report from Paradise” here, along with a few theological peregrinations. Poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak noted that in Herbert’s poem, even heaven has been “degraded into a social utopia, a sort of fairy-tale socialism,” in which the only solution, in Herbert’s words, is “to mix a grain of the absolute with a grain of clay.”

Apollo

Bully.

This reading, however, begins with Herbert’s famous and devastating (to me) poem, “Apollo and Marsyas,” and ends his Seamus’s own sonnet on the Polish poet’s death, in which Apollo also figures. Frankly, I’ve never been able to think of Apollo in quite the same way after reading Herbert’s poem. A bit of a brute…well, more than a bit.

Anyway, here’s Seamus’s 2008 reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin. Like it? There’s more: Part One of the reading is here and Part Two is here.

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Seamus Heaney: “rhymes as important as revolution”

Sunday, September 1st, 2013
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heaney2I’ll be speaking at a private book club event next week.  On what?  The role of the reader.  So many write and write and write about the process of writing, the burdens of the writer, the writer’s obligations to society, and so on and so on and so on.  Who thinks about the reader?  I do, sometimes.  And I’m not alone.  Here’s what Seamus Heaney, who died a last week (see posts here and here) had to say on the subject … well, he starts out on the right horse, but quickly falls off.

From Stepping Stones, a 500-page Q&A with Dennis O’Driscoll:

How do you respond to Joseph Brodskys contention that ‘a reader who has a great experience of poetry is less likely to fall prey to demagoguery on the part of the politician’? There is also Yves Bonnefoy‘s somewhat similar view that ‘poetry is a cure for ideology’.

Joseph was right to contend that a person sensitized to language by poetry is less likely to sway in the mass-media breeze; and I agree with Bonnefoy if he means that successful poetry will launch itself beyond the pull of the contingent and get into its own self-sustaining linguistic and imaginative orbit. Take a poem like ‘Leda and the Swan’.  It begins with what Bonnefoy might call ideology: Yeats starts thinking of the Russian Revolution, which represents the rule of the many, the arrival of power from below, from down to up, and that he opposes the rule of the few, the rule from above, from up to down, so the violent descent of Zeus upon Leda comes to mind as analogous to all this – but then, as Yeats himself has told us, bird and girl took over his imagining, and the poem, powerful and problematical as it is, took off.  Thinking about rhymes becomes as important as thinking about revolution.

But poems can be political insofar as they discover the paradigmatic. Think of Cavafy. Cavafy’s cameos of the ambitions and victories and defeats among various tyrannies and dynasties and satrapies during the Hellenistic age have a wonderful, clarified political wisdom, but they’re free – or, if you prefer, cured – of ideology. It’s hard to talk about this without citing examples, probably because examples tell us that the only real answers to the general problem are specific poems in specific situations. Whitman‘s hospital poems during the American civil war. Poems by Auden and MacNeice in the 1930s – ‘Look, Stranger’, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’.  Derek Mahon‘s ‘Lives’.

How should we regard a question like Czeslaw Miloszs ‘What is poetry that does not save/Nations or people?’

hartley's jamIt’s a cry wrung from him in extremis, de profundis, the cry of the responsible human. But it’s one he answers in different ways in his work – in the witness of poems like ‘Campo dei Fiori’ and ‘Song on Porcelain’, and in the obstinate espousal of beauty and order – the calligraphy, as he once called it – of poems like ‘The World’, or ‘Encounter’, or ‘Gift’.  These latter ones, incidentally, could have as their motto Brodsky’s equally challenging declaration that ‘if art teaches anything, it’s that the human condition is private’.

Where do you stand between those two positions?

Betwixt and between them – which is, in effect, where Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky also stood. Joseph was out to save people when he suggested during his time as Poet Laureate of the United States that poetry should, like the Gideon Bible, be available in hotel rooms and should be distributed like handouts at supermarket checkouts. And Czeslaw writes about loving herring and strawberry jam as well as beauty and truth.

Seamus Heaney at Stanford

Saturday, August 31st, 2013
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Seamus Heaney

Portrait of the poet as a young man.

Seamus Heaney, who died yesterday at 74, never taught at Stanford, but he did visit here at least once.  I was thumbing through Stepping Stones, the book-length Q&A with the late Dennis O’Driscoll, which I purchased after he mentioned it in his second letter to me (see yesterday’s post about that brief encounter here).  As with my usual impulsive book purchases, I had more money than time, so I never did more than crack the spine.  I did today though, and ran across this:

O’Driscoll:  Did you meet Thom Gunn?

Heaney:  During my later visit, yes, a couple of times. I don’t think we encountered in 1971/2. But when I was Beckman Professor [at the University of California] in 1976, Donald Davie organized a dinner in his house in Stanford and sent Alan Shapiro to collect me and drive me down. Alan was his graduate student at the time and had a car.  Thom Gunn was a guest that evening also and the whole event went off with great brio; but what I remember most was the fact that Thom had hitch-hiked down from San Francisco.  No pampering there – even the bus was too much for him.  I think, by the way, that I stilll like the iambic, English side of Gunn better.  Fighting Terms is a terrific first book; and there are poems like “The Discovery of the Pacific” and those late Dantesque treatments of the pre-AIDS gay scene in San Francisco.  He can really build the pressure when his stanzas are working for him.

thom-gunn

Gunn: he packed a punch

It wasn’t courage only that led Gunn to thumb his way down to Palo Alto from his Upper Haight apartment. He doesn’t drive, at all.  Who needs to in San Francisco, he told me.  (I suppose he still could have taken some sort of bus, if there was was one … which I doubt.)

To my knowledge, I was the last person to interview Thom Gunn. The Q&A  ran posthumously in the Georgia Review in Spring 2005 – alas, it’s not online.  Now Gunn did teach at Stanford, briefly, for one quarter.  I wrote about that here.

Au revoir, Seamus Heaney! My two letters from the Nobel laureate

Friday, August 30th, 2013
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Generous, humble, and glowing from the inside

“You of all people!”  That’s how my first letter from Nobel poet Seamus Heaney began.  It’s not hard to keep track of them; there were only two.  This, the first one, was in a large envelope,  addressed in his loose, open handwriting in December 2007.  His Strand Street address was in one corner, and some attractive, carefully chosen stamps with foxgloves, dandelions, and black bog rush.  (You see how carefully I still treasure this missive?)  I had written half a year before to ask that the Irish poet contribute his memories to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, and hadn’t received an answer.  When I heard today that he’d died, at 74, I went and pulled the letter out of a storage chest.

“You of all people! I’m very sorry to have overlooked your letter of last July: your book of Conversations with Czeslaw is one of the most helpful and constantly readable, and I’ve admired several reviews,” he wrote. He wanted to contribute, but warned that his memoir would be brief, and asked if I thought this would look “niggardly.” He kindly enclosed another piece on Joseph Brodsky, which he’d written for our mutual friend Valentina Polukhina. He neglected to remind me that he was still recovering from his 2006 stroke when I first wrote him, and had cancelled work for a year afterward.

heaney2Well, this was the man.  He was being humble to me.  It’s a powerful lesson in noblesse oblige, whether in poetry or some other field.  But one has to admit in the literary arena, it’s somewhat rare.  As an editor or journalist, one is more likely to be treated like an annoying tick than a respected colleague.  I pinned the letter to my wall for several years, to look at it in the bad times.

So I even treasured the second letter from Dublin, nine months later, signed simply “Seamus” with handwritten insertions (this one with a stamp featuring sea asters).  He wouldn’t be able to contribute after all.  He was about to set out on a road show with Dennis O’Driscoll (who died before him, I wrote about Seamus’s generous tribute hailing him as “my hero” here) – they’d just published a book-length Q&A called Stepping Stones – plus a TV documentary for his 70th birthday.  Given his schedule, and he was “naturally very sorry not to have been able to deliver a piece that would do credit to Czeslaw and indeed to myself before now.”  Henceforth we communicated back-and-forth through a flurry of emails via the mysterious cyberspace intermediary “Susie,” since she had an email address and he didn’t – he admitted “I’m still at the scriptorium stage of development.” We wound up reprinting his earlier memoir, “In Gratitude for All the Gifts” for the book, written when his fellow Nobelist had died in 2004. And no, it wasn’t “niggardly” at all.  It was, like him, generous and humble and glowing from the inside, like a peat fire in a cold Irish winter.

Postscript from Jane Hirshfield, as always eloquent. Jane joins the world in mourning the loss of Seamus Heaney, one of its greatest, most eloquent, and most generous poets. She writes: “In his presence and in his words, you felt always the embrace of being. His words brought the burnish of original seeing. You were made, quite simply, more alive by his aliveness, in life and on the page – as in the opening poem from his 2010 collection, Human Chain:

Had I Not Been Awake

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it

It came and went too unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Hurtling like an animal at the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
Afterwards. And not now.

Jane&seamus

Two poets, held in memory…

Seamus Heaney talks of “my hero,” the late Dennis O’Driscoll

Thursday, January 10th, 2013
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“Selfless” and “companionable”

Dennis O’Driscoll is dead.  I did not know him, but apparently many of my friends did, from the Facebook postings and Twitter chatter. The Guardian praised him as “selfless” and “companionable”:

In an age when poets tend to hover near schools and universities, Dennis O’Driscoll, who has died suddenly aged 58, was an exception. Having become a civil servant in Dublin at the age of 16 (starting with death duties), he remained one for almost 40 years. “In the civil service you are assigned a grade. You know your status,” he told the Irish Times. “Whereas with poetry, you never retire and you never really know your grade – it will be assigned posthumously.”

O’Driscoll had always known he wanted to be a poet, even before he heard a school recitation of Shakespeare‘s “When icicles hang by the wall” and nearly fainted. He was born in Thurles, Co Tipperary, where he was educated by the Christian Brothers. Both of his parents had died by the time he was 20 and he was left in charge of his five siblings. Unsurprisingly, mortality and work would become two of his preoccupations.

I have his Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney on my bookshelf. One of those books I’m saving for a rainy day that never comes – even in a long California winter. “He devoted years to collaborating with me on a book I needed to write but one that, without Dennis as interviewer, might never have got written.”

The elder Irish poet said, “He devoted years to collaborating with me on a book I needed to write but one that, without Dennis as interviewer, might never have got written.” He called O’Driscoll “my hero,” and said of his colleague and friend:

Not only was he constant in his dedication to his own work, he also acted as mentor and sounding board to beginners and established figures alike. Modest to a fault, he would have shrugged off the hero word.Yet there was heroic virtue in the man, in the way he answered the demands of his day job as a civil servant and then devoted what ought to have been free time for his own work to responding to the work of others. He was like Yeats‘s “man of a passionate serving kind”, never self-promoting or seeking the limelight but constantly being sought.

All these ruminations began on a pensive Thursday night, when I ran across O’Driscoll’s Lannan interview with Seamus Heaney, front-loaded with a few minutes of Heaney reading poems. I know, I know … Heaney is the entrée here to O’Driscoll’s postprandial.  That’s how it goes when you’ve bagged a Nobel.  Somehow I think O’Driscoll wouldn’t mind.  As O’Driscoll says in the clip, quoting Mrs. Heaney, “There’s no such thing as a short poetry reading.”  He continued, “I’ve held that there’s no such thing as a long Seamus Heaney reading.”

And as for the second clip:  Well, you can’t top “The Wolf,” can you?  Or get too much of it…

 

Notting Hill Editions: Irish saints, Dutch executioners, and “a crumb of helpless goodness”

Sunday, November 11th, 2012
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Alas, the books pile up faster than I have time to read them – or, in some cases, even look at them.

Some months ago, I received an unbidden package from the U.K., and I’ve only just now broken the cellophane on the two books that were enclosed.  Notting Hill Editions is “devoted to the best in essayistic nonfiction writing.” It’s an excellent series, sized for the “Tube-bound intellectual,” according to the very thorough website, which includes  Harry Mount‘s weekly journal.  Beyond their portability, the superb cloth-covered books in a rich spectrum of colors are classy and very affordable at £ 10.00 each.

The two that arrived in my mailbox are the orange-bound edition of Zbigniew Herbert‘s classic Still Life with a Bridle (translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter) and Hubert Butler‘s The Eggman and the Fairies, Irish Essays (edited by John Banville), in a suitably Irish green.

In gratitude for the gift, I can do no better than site a few passages from both.  I have not chosen these passages entirely at random; they are neither the most representative nor the most elegant passages of the books, but instead I was drawn by two eloquent passages about mysterious nature of mercy and charity.

Butler’s discussion of “the movement for the rehabilitation of Celtic saints, which had begun in chivalry, [and] had ended in sterility.” The author, who died at 90 in 1991, writes in “Saints, Scholars and Civil Servants”:

Ailbe in infancy: he worked his way up to lions

But why should it be undermining to our morals or bruising to our national pride if one were to argue that the Irish saints were many of them the tribal gods of a gentle and intelligent people, whose racial origins retreat so far into history that to use the national terms for them, Celt, Iberian, Gaulish, would not be easy? I was brought up in the diocese of St. Canice, but the less I believed in him, the more I was fascinated by him. He covered five Irish counties and as many Scottish and Welsh ones with his churches and miracles.  He left his crozier in Iona, the little toe of his right foot in northern Italy, and, standing on one leg, was fed by seagulls in the Gower Peninsula. He is a link between the medieval world and one that is immemorially old. Those who treat him as a monastic fiction are as wrong as Cardinal Moran, who saw him in his own image as a busy Irish prelate with widespread diocesan responsibilities.  The lives of the Irish saints reflect an ingenious innocence, a primaeval charity, that links them with Greek legend and the beginnings of poetry. For example, when St. Ailbe, travelling in Italy, resurrected two  horses and their groom, who had been killed by lions, he took pity on the hungry, disappointed carnivores and arranged for a suitable meal (an aptum prandium) to come down Heaven for them on a cloud.

Of course we’ve always loved Herbert – Seamus Heaney says, “He shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility.” Herbert’s essay, “The Mercy of the Executioner,” describes the execution of the statesman Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, who had “defended his honor rather than his life” at trial:

Defended his honor more than his life

When they brought in the condemned man, the crowd fell silent. Van Oldenbarnevelt was hurrying toward death: ‘What you must do, do it fast,’ he urged the executors of the verdict.

The something happened that went far beyond the ritual of execution, beyond the procedure of any known execution. The executioner led the condemned man to a spot where the sunlight was falling and said, ‘Here, Your Honour, you will have sun on your face.’ …

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s executioner broke the rules of the game, left his role, and, what is more, violated the principles of professional ethics. Why did he do it? Certainly it was an impulse of the heart. But didn’t the condemned man, who was stripped of all earthly glory, perceive derision in it? After all, it is indifferent to those who are leaving for ever whether they die in the sun, in shadow, or the darkness of night. The executioner, artisan of death, became an ambiguous figure filled with potential meaning when to the condemned man – in his last moment – he threw a crumb of helpless goodness.

Banville on Butler below: