Posts Tagged ‘Seamus Heaney’

Joseph Brodsky wrote an annual Christmas poem. Why did he do it?

Thursday, December 24th, 2020
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A Christmas card from the Brodsky Foundation features “Anno Domini” and Martin Schongauer.

My favorite Christmas card this year has a poem on it. The Joseph Brodsky Foundation usually doesn’t disappoint – not even in the year of COVID, which has put a damper on the season, as well as on its Christmas cards. This year’s greeting features Martin Schongauer‘s 1475 engraving and the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 1968 poem, “Anno Domini,” in the Russian. Can’t read Russian? You can read Daniel Weissbort‘s translation of the poem in The Iowa Review here. Or you could buy a copy of Brodsky’s Nativity Poemsa superb collection of eighteen of the poems he wrote annually, as a sort of birthday greeting. The collection is translated by a number of first-rate translators, including Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney.

The Russian poet said the annual discipline pretty much began when he began to write poems seriously. He tried to write a poem for every Christmas – even though the Jewish poet called himself an atheist. “I liked that concentration of everything in one place – which is what you have in that cave scene,” he explained. But that’s not all of it, either. He once facetiously described himself “a Christian by correspondence.” I suspect he was only half joking.

Why did he do it? Here’s the way  himself explained it in an interview with Peter Vail, included in the book:

I’ll tell you how it all started. I wrote the first Nativity poems, I think, in Komarovo. I was living at a dacha, I don’t remember whose, though it might have been Academician [Aksel] Berg’s. And there I cut a picture out of a Polish magazine, I think it was Przekrój. The picture was Adoration of the Magi, I don’t remember by whom. I stuck it on the ceramic stove and often looked at it in the evenings. It burned later on, the painting, and the stove, and the dacha itself. But at the time I kept on looking and decided to write a poem on the same subject. That is, it all began not from religious feelings, or from Pasternak or Eliot, but from a painting.

His fellow Nobelist, the Polish poet Czesław Miłoszgave me his own explanation twenty years ago: “If we cannot return to the stable world of the past, at least we can have some respect for some stable points. Brodsky would write every Christmas a poem – on that event, on the birth of Jesus.  This is a sort of piety, I should say, for the past, for some crucial points in our history.”

“Anno Domino” returned me to Nativity Poems tonight, on Christmas Eve. As I recall, I return to this volume every Christmas … my own “stable point.” From Richard Wilbur’s translation of 25.XII.1993:

… For miracles, gravitating
to earth, know just where people will be waiting,
and eagerly will find the right address
and tenant, even in a wilderness.

Dana Gioia’s archives go to Huntington, Stanford – including “tens of thousands” of letters!

Monday, April 20th, 2020
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Dana Gioia’s books, manuscripts, libretti are now at the Huntington Library.

Dana Gioia is a man of letters in the time-honored sense of the term, influencing our culture as a poet and essayist, but also as a translator, editor, anthologist, librettist, teacher, literary critic, and advocate for the arts. His correspondence was extensive, and it went on for decades. Hence, his archive is a treasure trove, and though he has had offers from other institutions to acquire it, he wanted his papers to stay in California. Now it will. He has donated his substantial archive to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which announced today it had acquired the papers of the poet and writer who served as the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003–09 and as the California Poet Laureate from 2015–19.

Dana Gioia in L.A. with friend, Doctor Gatsby (Photo: Starr Black)

It is the second large donation he has made in the last year. Last August, he gave to Stanford the large archive of Story Line Press, which he co-founded. The papers are the central archive for the New Formalism movement. The archive includes a number of people who have spent time at Stanford, including Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Christian Wiman, Paul Lake, Annie Finch, and of course Dana himself, among others. Stanford Libraries already holds the archive for The Reaper, so this is a natural pairing with that irreverent journal.

The larger Huntington archive includes correspondence with many of the major poets and writers for the last several decades, including Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Ray Bradbury, Rachel Hadas, Jane Hirshfield, William Maxwell, Thom Gunn, Edgar BowersKay Ryan, Robert Conquest, Julia Alvarez, Thomas Disch, Cynthia Ozick,  Donald Davie, Anthony Burgess, John Cheever, J.V. Cunningham, and even some musicians, such as Dave Brubeck. It also includes his own books, manuscripts, and libretti. “Even after I pruned my correspondence, there is a lot of letters – in the tens of thousands,” said Dana.

“When I told my brother Ted that I had made the donation, he commented that I wanted my papers to be at the Huntington because our mother took us there as children. ‘You’re probably right,’ I said. I  still remember seeing the elegant manuscript of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ there nearly sixty years ago. It was my first glimpse into that enchanted kingdom by the sea called poetry.”

The Huntington picked up 71 archival boxes last December – the first part of his donation. Then Dana Gioia had a more urgent task: the next day he flew back to northern California home, which sustained fire damage during last year’s Kincade wildfire.

From the Huntington release:

The archive documents Gioia’s work as a poet through fastidiously maintained drafts of poems and essays from his books, which include five books of poetry and three books of critical essays. He is one of the most prominent writers of the “New Formalist” school of poetry, a movement that promoted the return of meter and rhyme, although his arts advocacy work situates him in a broader frame.

The archive en dishabillé, as Mary Gioia helps organize.

“In his correspondence, you see a writer who has been willing to engage the young and old, the esteemed and emergent—anyone who wants to critically discuss poetic form, contemporary audiences for poetry, and the importance of literary reading during decades when popular culture has become increasingly visual and attention spans have fractured,” said Karla Nielsen, curator of literary collections at The Huntington. “We are delighted that Dana has entrusted his papers to The Huntington, where his collection fits perfectly. He is a local author—he grew up in a Mexican/Sicilian American household in Hawthorne—and even as he attained international recognition as a poet and assumed the chairmanship of the NEA, he remained loyal to the region and invested in Los Angeles’ unique literary communities.”

“I’m delighted to have my papers preserved in my hometown of Los Angeles, especially at The Huntington, a place I have loved since the dreamy days of my childhood,” said Gioia.

While the range of correspondents in the collection is broad and eclectic, the sustained letter writing with poets Donald Justice, David Mason, and Ted Kooser is particularly significant.

Gioia’s work co-editing a popular poetry anthology textbook with the poet X. J. Kennedy from the 1990s to the present will interest scholars working on canon formation during those decades when the “culture wars” were a politically charged issue.

A portion of the materials represent Gioia’s work as an advocate for poetry and the arts at the NEA and as the California Poet Laureate. This work is integral to his career and will be important to scholars interested in the place of poetry and the role of reading for pleasure within greater debates about literacy and literary reading at the beginning of the 20th century. … At The Huntington, Gioia’s archive joins that of another businessman poet, Wallace Stevens; that of a very different but also quintessentially Los Angeles poet, Charles Bukowski; and those of two other New Formalist poets, Henri Coulette and Robert Mezey.

Tens of thousands of letters and much more – now at the library his mother Dorothy Ortiz took Ted and Dana Gioia to visit as children. Dana remembers the Poe manuscript of “Annabel Lee.”

Biographer recalls the last days of Roger Scruton: “when not writing, he was reading”

Sunday, March 1st, 2020
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His last chance to “chat about the future.” (Photo: Pete Helme)

My post on Sir Roger Scrutons death on January 12 tapped into an unexpected amount of interest. I didn’t know the writer and philosopher’s work before his death, so it’s odd I find myself writing the third post in less than two months, but here we are. (The other earlier post  was here.)

The new occasion: over at The Critic, his Irish biographer Mark Dooley recounts his last visits with his friend and subject. The piece might serve as an introduction to those who are as new to his thought as I am.

He begins:

“It was just before Christmas last year when I travelled to Sunday Hill Farm in Wiltshire, the fabled home of my dear friend Sir Roger Scruton. I was there to chat about his health and some future collaborations that we had planned.  When he was diagnosed with cancer at the end of last summer, he had written asking me to visit so that we could, as he put it, ‘chat about the future’.

As I entered the farmhouse – what he liked to call ‘Scrutopia’ – Roger sat alone in the evening gloom tapping away on his laptop.  Even in his weakened state, he felt compelled to write.  Back in 2015, when we recorded the discussions for my book Conversations with Roger Scruton, he told me that, ‘I wrote from the moment I had the calling to be a writer, which I got when I was sixteen.  I didn’t know how to do it, but I wrote every day and I always have done’.  This was a truth I discovered first-hand whenever I visited him at home, or when he came to Ireland, or even when we were at conferences elsewhere.  The first thing he did each morning was go to his desk and write.  For him, it was a daily vocation that simply had to answered.  That day was no different.  ‘What are you writing?’ I asked.  ‘The Scrutopia newsletter,’ he replied without taking his eyes off the screen.  He then proceeded to tell me how he had just finished a condensed summary of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report.  The furore surrounding his sacking and subsequent reinstatement as chair of that body, had done nothing to diminish his passion for it.  ‘I wrote a synopsis of the full report in 500 words.  But they are good words,’ he added with pride.

Roger could barely walk and was in great discomfort, and yet, as his beloved wife Sophie told me, ‘He hasn’t spent a single day in bed’.  When not writing, he was reading, amongst others, a book on Irish poet Seamus Heaney.  ‘For whatever reason, I always ignored him.  But now I see that he was a truly great poet.’

A few excerpts:

England, he once wrote, is an ‘imagined community’, by which he meant that it derives its personality from its customs, institutions, literature, music and religion. It, too, has a personality and character that invites love, respect and loyalty. But, as with all persons, it is no less susceptible to desecration. Love, morality, culture and sacred values are all fragile things that take many generations to build up, but only a day to tear down. If our common home consists of such things, it is because it is also a thing of intrinsic value. For Scruton, England was less a place than a matrix of meaning from which people could ‘stand, as it were, at the window of our empirical world and gaze out towards the transcendental’. Radicals of all stripes attempt to smash that window, but, in the way that he lives and loves, the conservationist shows that we human beings ‘have an innate need to conceptualise our world in terms of the transcendental’, and, in so doing, ‘to live out the distinction between the sacred and the profane’.

***

In a poignant essay from 2005, entitled ‘Dying Quietly’, Scruton wrote that ‘My death is not simply, for me, the death of RS, the event about which you might read in an obituary. It is a vast crisis, standing athwart my life and commanding me to prepare for it…Every death prompts the search for meaning – especially the death of someone loved. But my death challenges me in another way; its inevitability is like a command – namely, live your life so that this will be part of it and not just an end to it. St. Paul reminds us that “in the midst of life we are in death” meaning that our normal ways of living forbid us to plan either the time or the manner of our extinction. Yet we need to live in such a way that death, when it comes, is not a catastrophe but (if possible) a culmination – a conclusion to our actions that can be read back into all that preceded it and show it to be worthwhile’.

In the quiet and dignified way in which he died Roger Scruton testified to the truth of his own words. For many people, his death was, indeed, a catastrophe – the loss of someone who had given them hope in dark times. And yet, as I glanced at him for the last time, I saw a smiling man whose end was the conclusion he had always hoped for and richly deserved. It was a fitting conclusion that rendered his brave and beautiful life profoundly worthwhile.

Read the whole thing here.

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.”