Seamus Heaney was introduced last night at City Arts and Lectures by an American poet of skill and grace, a man admired by many for his work as a poet and as an advocate for poetry. This man is as close to being a rock star in the poetry world as you can get without being Billy Collins. And yet, something about preceding Heaney seemed to unnerve him. Although he spoke at length and helpfully about the poems Heaney was going to read, it was difficult to follow his introduction. That's because every few seconds he would remove his glasses, then place them on the podium or slide them into his shirt pocket or wave them in the air. And then he’d put them on again and the whole elaborate dance of removal and retrieval would begin again. Three quarters of the way through the introduction, I began to count the number of times his hands met his glasses. I got to eleven before Heaney came on the stage.
Heaney is a big man, tall, with a cloud of white hair. He has a long, elegant handsome face. Before reading many of the poems, he said a few things about them that made what came next even more enjoyable. He told the audience about coming of age in Northern Ireland, about how his poetry was a poetry of indirection by necessity. At that time and place, one did not, as American poets like Robert Lowell were doing, “tell what happened.” One tells the truth, but one tells it slant, as Emily Dickinson so famously put it.
He did not say it was dangerous to write overtly about the events of the day although it sounds like it might have been unwise to do so. Nor did he suggest that he found the necessity of writing indirectly a burden.
He began with Digging, an early poem about the heavy work of writing. He talked a little about the problem of telling "what happened," when what was happening in 1969 were random acts of violence by paramilitaries, including the murder of a cousin, walking home from a soccer match. This poem, The Strand at Lough Beg was a revelation. (The poem can be found about half way through the link.)
He read a poem about St. Kevin that was simply beautiful.
Toward the end of the evening, he read recent poems, poems which seemed to feature a lot of objects that make noise. In particular, he read a poem about a man striking an anvil over and over to bring in the millenium. And a poem in which he described the clear tone of a bell ringing. They are in his newest book, District and Circle.
The questions that came after he read accomplished what questions at occasions like this should — they gave him a chance to talk at greater length about his work. He described translating the Anglo Saxon of Beowulf into English (very difficult — he'd do 100 lines and collapse) and talked about what it was like to win the Nobel Prize. (About this, he said only that he could not say the words “I” and “Nobel” in the same sentence. His son had to tell his wife the news.)
One question stood out, not because of the question, which managed to be dismissive of Heaney's work and a bit haughty (“I know you’ve won the Nobel Prize, which didn’t just honor your work as a poet, but brought you a wider audience. Now tell us who you think should get the prize next year”) but because of his response.
Heaney was silent for a moment. “I can’t say,” he said finally and flatly. He didn't say any more. It was obvious why he couldn't say more, why that would be rude and inappropriate and not helpful. The microphone people at City Arts, whose job it is to wander the audience and look for people with questions, didn’t seem to realize he was finished talking. He clearly was. He graciously ad libbed for a moment, until they could get on with it. “Certainly,” he said, “it would not be me.” And then he answered a question about Dante, read a final poem and said goodnight.
Earlier in the evening, he'd described how he'd written a poem that was a reaction to a strike held by Irish political prisoners. The poem wasn't directly about the strike, but he was considering dedicating it to these men. Around the same time, he received a visit from a Sinn Fein representative ("Sinn Fein and more," is how Heaney described him). The man asked Heaney what he was contributing to the struggle. Now that he'd been asked directly, he saw he could not dedicate the poem as he'd planned. He did not give "tribute," he explained. I imagine his response to the Sinn Fein man was a little like his response to the question last night. A brief refusal, and then silence. There's something very powerful about that sort of silence. In the hands of a great poet, at the right moment, it says all that needs to be said.