Posts Tagged ‘Seamus Heaney’

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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Heaney

Generous, humble, and glowing from the inside

“You of all people!”  That’s how my first letter from Seamus Heaney began.  It’s not hard to keep track; there were only two.  This 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 he 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:

Getting personal: NBCC’s quiet winner Clare Cavanagh

Thursday, March 17th, 2011
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“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden famously observed.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t try.

One of the more unnoticed of this year’s National Book Critics Circle award-winners is Clare Cavanagh‘s Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West. Clare takes on the notion of poets as “unacknowledged legislators” (Percy Bysshe Shelley) and “the would-be prophet, who publicly takes his people’s suffering upon himself so that his oppressed, applauding nation might be free.”

The secret police may be the true unacknowledged legislators, but it takes the secret police both to make and to break a nation’s acknowledged, if unauthorized poet-prophets.  … Tyrants make the rules, not poets, and dictators’ deeds change worlds far more often than artists’ words do.  Poetic legislation has its limits: “No lyric has ever stopped a tank,” [Seamus] Heaney remarks. Indeed, by the mid-eighties … [Adam] Zagajewski had challenged his compatriots preoccupation with poetry as a form of collective resistance. He chose to “dissent from dissent,” to break ranks with would-be artist-legislators by setting his lyric “I” against the defiant “we” that had shaped his poetic generation. The “unacknowledged legislator’s dream” has a nasty habit of becoming the acknowledged prophet’s nightmare, as Zagajewski suggests in his programmatically unprogrammatic Solidarity, Solitude.

biographer ...

Of course, being immersed in Polish literature, I’ve known Clare by name for years before I met her in person.

And were it not for Ewa Domanska, I still might not have met her.  Ewa, who teaches at Stanford every spring and then returns to Poznań, gave me a heads-up about a “Workshop in Poetics” on May 27, 2008, led by Clare.  Of course I dropped by.

Clare was a surprise.  Given her heavyweight credentials (she is, among other things, Milosz’s official biographer), I expected someone intimidating.

She is not.  This daughter of Eire is affable and down-to-earth.  I should have expected as much from her chapter, “Job and Forrest Gump,” in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, describing the period after Carol Miłosz ’s death, including a few travails in her own role as biographer:

The visiting got more difficult. I knew he had black moods when Carol was alive, but Carol was famous among his friends for driving them away. But I really saw the doubts, the moods, and the black sides—he could give Jehovah a run for the money when it came to striking terror—only after Carol died. Sometimes it would be yet another younger poet attacking him; “He called me ‘Moscow’s dancing bear,’” I remember Miłosz saying bleakly about one young writer. The attacks came on a fairly regular basis, and he took them all to heart. I suppose this was the reverse side of the childlike joy at every compliment. I once gave a Kraków cabdriver Miłosz’s street address—I never mentioned his name—and he recognized it right away. “Are you going to visit Czesław Miłosz? Please give him the best regards of the cabdriver in the red Mercedes,” he asked requested. Miłosz beamed.

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Sometimes the doubts ran deeper—his life, his poetry, his soul. And sometimes the doubts were about me: “You will produce not my life, but only some facsimile,” he said with a scowled in the summer of 2003. He spent several weeks that summer putting me through the biographer’s equivalent of boot camp. I’d come armed daily with the best questions I could muster, written with the help of a small army of poets, professors, and Miłosz specialists. And every day he gave the same response: “Takie oszywiste pytania,” “(Such obvious questions).” Then he’d would invite me for another session the next day, when yet another set of questions would be dismissed and after an excruciating hour or two, I’d would be sent home to think up some “questions no one’s asked me yet.” Questions no one has ever asked Miłosz. It was like Rumpelstiltskin in Polish, but worse.

Finally, after a sleepless night spent reading and rereading Druga przestrzeń (the then-untranslated Second Space), I went in and asked about the poems, and about religion. Those were the questions he wanted. And that was what I’d wanted to talk about, too, but I’d thought biographers were supposed to do something different. We talked about “Father Seweryn” and “The Treatise on Theology”—I said I’d been surprised by the Virgin at the end, and he laughed and said, “I was, too.”

The next morning, Clare and I chatted and gossiped at Starbucks, at the impossible and dangerous intersection of Stanford and El Camino, before she returned to the Northwestern University.

I don’t remember much of what she said during that seminar (I have notes somewhere), but she read Miłosz ’s canonical “Dedication,” which opens:

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.  …

As she does in her new book, she pointed out that something obvious that slipped away in the English translation:  The first word, in Polish, is singular, not plural.  Read that way, this is not the declamatory, rhetorical address to nations and peoples.  It is personal, not something to be read over a public address system. He’s speaking urgently to a particular person who perished, in a plea that ends:

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.