On Monday, November 11, an overflow crowd gathered in Cooper Union's Great Hall to honor the great poet Seamus Heaney, who died last August. In opening the evening of readings from Heaney's work, Alice Quinn, Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America noted Heaney's "scrupulous generosity and grace, his infinite kindness and warmth, and his miraculous art." As the evening progressed, the stage and auditorium filled with words and music from the uillean pipes of Ivan Goff and the harp of Marta Cook. In the audience, we listened to Heaney's reminiscences of his childhood in County Derry when he was "as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence. But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signalling too." (1995 Nobel Lecture, "Crediting Poetry")
As his poems were read aloud by distinguished poets who continue to write, teach, and publish, and were listened to and appreciated by an audience including many more poets and scholars, lifelong readers and new converts, Seamus Heaney's wide legacy was evident. In giving sound and voice to his work and life, poetry was credited; it flourished and proved itself, as he had proclaimed eighteen years earlier of Yeats. Since his Nobel prize and the deeply resonant lecture he gave on that occasion, another half-generation of poets have been nourished by what he continued to turn over and turn up, to make and to make known.
Among the lines from poems of Seamus Heaney read aloud Monday night were these (links at each poet's name are provided to suggest in part the reach of Seamus Heaney's influence and inspiration):
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes. -- from "Exposure" read by Frank Bidart.
My father is a barefoot boy with news,
Running at eye-level with weeds and stokes
On the afternoon of his own father's death.
I feel his legs and quick heels far away
And strange as my own -- when he will piggyback me
At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,
Like a witless elder rescued from the fire. -- from "Man and Boy" read by Sven Birkerts
They loved music and swam in for a singer
who might stand at the end of summer
in the mouth of a whitewashed turf-shed,
his shoulder to the jamb, his song
a rowboat far out in evening. -- from ""The Singer's House" read by Eavan Boland
My poor scapegoat,
I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence. -- from "Punishment" read by Lucie Brock-Broido
A girl in a white dress
Was being courted out among the cars:
As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs
I felt like some old pike all badged with sores
Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life. -- from "The Guttural Muse" read by Greg Delanty
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows. -- from "The Forge" read by Jonathan Galassi
Tell the truth. Do not be afraid.
Durable, obstinate notions,
like quarrymen's hammers and wedges
proofed by intransigent service.
Like coping stones where you rest
in the balm of the wellspring. -- from "The Master" read by Eamon Grennan
After eleven years I was composing
Love-letters again, broaching the word 'wife'
Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel
had mutated into the night earth and air
Of California. -- from "The Skunk" read by Matthea Harvey
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless. -- from "Bogland" read by Edward Hirsch
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives --
Never closer the whole rest of our lives. -- from "Clearances. III" read by Jane Hirshfield
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it. -- from "Digging" read by Yusef Komunyakaa
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away. -- from "Follower" read by Paul Muldoon
The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser --
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm. -- from "The Harvest Bow" read by Atsuro Riley
'These things are not secrets but mysteries,'
Oisin Kelly told me years ago
In Belfast, hankering after stone
That connived with the chisel, as if the grain
Remembered what the mallet tapped to know. -- from "Glanmore Sonnets, II" read by Colm Toibin
One sound is saying, 'You aren't worth tuppence,
But neither is anybody. So watch Number One!'
The other says, 'Go with it! Give and swerve.
You are everything you feel beside the river.' -- from "Casting and Gathering" read by Paul Simon
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. 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. -- from "Postscript" read by Tom Sleigh
Deep planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for. -- from "Clearances, VIII" read by Tracy K. Smith
Once, as a child, out in a field of sheep,
Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead
And lay down flat among their dainty shins.
In that sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space
He experimented with infinity. -- from "Squarings, vi" read by Jean Valentine
At night there, something uncanny happens:
The water burns. And the mere bottom
Has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its back, the heather-stepper halts:
The hart in flight from pursuing hounds
Will turn to face them with firm-set horns
And die in the wood rather than dive
Beneath its surface. That is no good place. -- from Beowulf, (trans.) read by Anne Waldman
….Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love's deep river,
'To labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name. -- from "St. Kevin and the Blackbird" read by Kevin Young
The evening closed with a recording of the poet reading "Bogland," a technical error. The intended ending was "The Given Note" and Liam O'Flynn playing the air the poem enshrines. These closing lines are, first, from that poem and then from another in which Heaney begins with a response to a poem by Giovanni Pascoli, "L'Aquilone."
So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don't care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.
Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air. -- from "The Given Note" by Seamus Heaney
And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,
Lifts itself, goes with the wind until
It rises to loud cheers from us below. -- from "A Kite for Aibhin" by Seamus Heaney
for "A Kite for Aibhin" go here.
The first image in the blog post is a photograph of the by Tai-Shan Schierenberg portrait of Seamus Heaney, oil on canvas, 2004 on display in Room 36 at the National Portrait Gallery: London
The blog's title is a line from Seamus Heaney's "The Harvest Bow."
The memorial reading was organized by the Poetry Society of America, Poets House, the Academy of American Poetry, the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y, and the Irish Arts Center PoetryFest.
Madge McKeithen has written about poems in her book, Blue Peninsula (FSG, 2006) and in literary journals, anthologies and newspapers. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Best American Essays 2011. She initiated the One Page Poetry Circle at the NYPL and at the Darien (CT) Library, teaches essay writing in the School of Writing at the New School University, blogs at www.madgemckeithen.com and tweets (sporadically) @MadgeMcKeithen.