Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney began his visit to Cornell with the Eamon McEneaney memorial reading last Thursday at Schwartz Auditorium in Rockefeller Hall. Prof. Ishion Hutchinson, English, opened the session by relating an anecdote about a Colgate University professor who was starstruck and nervous as he introduced the visiting poet William Butler Yeats. The Colgate professor, who spoke of Yeats as the author of several great works, was later embarrassed to discover that none of these works were actually Yeats’. This error, Hutchinson claimed, was actually less devastating than it seemed. Poets like Yeats and Heaney — widely perceived as the two most important Irish poets of all time — represent a “suspension between the archaic and the modern.” Poets of their caliber, he argued, are living and breathing creators of posterity, molded by all of the great works of their predecessors. Our job, as the next generation, he said, is to “speak of what we know and testify of what we see.”
Heaney began with a passage from his Beowulf translation and a commentary on the timelessness of the text. The chosen passage starts with the line: “Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance.” Heaney’s message was foreboding: Remember never to feel safe. Here, the thread of a historical narrative was ever-present. While Heaney is often thought of as the quintessential Irish poet, mining the lives of the often-overlooked island for the prospect of something universal, the poems he chose on Thursday granted weight to Prof. Hutchinson’s words about the poet as a continuation of history. Heaney read “A Sofa in the Forties,” a poem about a child’s game of turning a living room sofa into a train — an activity based on the BBC series Riders of the Range. Of the unintended juxtaposition of his childhood train with those of Auschwitz, he said, “We enter history in ignorance. You live long enough and then you realize what you are doing.”
The context for “Sunlight,” Heaney’s ode to his home at Mossbawn, was a 1940s Ireland where the British war effort was omnipresent. Lines like the closing one of this poem — “And here is love like a tinsmith’s scoop sunk past its gleam in the meal-bin” — deftly sum up the importance of Heaney’s work. Everyday life and love were what Heaney cherished in Ireland at a time when the rest of the world was collapsing. Should we presume to be vessels of history, all we have to do is simply record our own.
“Casualty” is an outlier in Heaney’s body of work. It is an overtly political poem, written in memory of Louis O’Neill, who was killed during the infamous 1972 events of Bloody Sunday. This is where Heaney’s historical narrative came to the forefront, as the poem alternates between humanizing descriptions of O’Neill and graphic accounts of the bombing and tensions in Ireland. The poem asks of O’Neill, “How culpable was he?” and wonders if everyone who was killed on Bloody Sunday might be intrinsically innocent, if war is perhaps a force beyond the mental conception of individual men. The final line of the poem is “Question me again,” a note on the individual’s inability to pass judgment on the events he witnesses. The poem is often compared in theme to Yeats’ “Easter 1916,” which treats political turmoil in a similar fashion, asking only a series of unanswerable questions and referencing associational guilt.
On Friday morning, what was billed as a “Question & Answer Session” with Heaney turned out to be an intimate continuation of Thursday’s reading. Heaney started the session by reading his most widely-recognized poem, “Digging.” He told the audience that “Digging” was the “first poem in which I really felt like I was making my own kind of noise.” The contrast between a pen and a spade is more apt than we may have realized, he disclosed, as Irish tribal writing was considered “not an activity, but a task,” much like any other necessary labor. The task at hand was to engage in the creative act of digging up whatever is there and then “letting it do the work for you.” After he read the poem, he remarked in a near whisper, “That was 1964. I guess I was still pretty innocent then.” It was not until after the readings of “Man and Boy,” a requested favorite, and “North,” a discussion of writings of dissonance, that someone got up the courage to ask:
“What did you mean by ‘you were innocent?’ What does it mean to be a corrupted poet?”
Heaney’s first response was laughter. Presumably, he only felt the weight of his words once they were thrown back at him. But to be a “corrupted poet,” he finally said, is to become aware that you are a “poet” at all. The birth of a poet is “hopeful and panicky” and “open and innocent,” but the priority will shift to making things “witty and closed off and perfect.” This innocence is something to be valued despite its imperfections, as it allows us to write things with “a sense of danger,” Heaney advised. This issue resurfaced when a student asked Heaney about how he weighs the consequences that truth can bring against that dedication to openness, referencing a poem about Heaney’s father, “Follower.” Heaney identified a line in the poem and then said, “Talking of innocence, what I’d probably do nowadays is just stop there.” His advice to aspiring writers was to get rid of their sense of a moral high ground and capture effectively by creating a “commerce between temperament and the times we live in.”
The reading he did from a series of his poems, Station Island, was prefaced with a heavy political contextualization. But Heaney stated afterwards, “I didn’t identify the man at the door, it would have been unjust. Stay in the solitude of an artistic area. But there are times …” And he trailed off.
Prof. Hutchinson asked if anyone had a suggestion for the final reading. It had been only 35 minutes, but we were allegedly running short on time. Someone wanted to hear the third sonnet from “The Clearances,” a series of eight sonnets that Heaney wrote after his mother’s death in 1984. He recited the sonnet from memory. At first, the poem is about peeling potatoes. Then the poem meditates on Catholic Mass and final absolutions before tackling the metallic imagery of war and the warmth of home. “The Clearances” is distinctly Irish, but also distinctly human. Although my frustration with Heaney’s pandering jokes and grumble-slurred sentences had been overpowering at points throughout the events of the last 24 hours, this poem brought me back to my senses. Here we were, glimpsing the archaic works of William Butler Yeats, in the presence of a genuine and not-yet-archaic vessel of the last century, the one that we ourselves had not quite been participants of. Here we were, a collection of the newly “hopeful and panicky,” asking eager questions and hanging on words in hopes of gleaning a shred of wisdom on how to confront the new generation which is wholly ours to record. And as I shuffled slowly and regretfully out of the room, unable to even whisper a “Thank you,” I put aside fear of judgment to take a last, uncomfortably long over-the-shoulder look at those elbow pads and that white hair — for posterity’s sake.