Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney (1939 - 2013)

As anyone who has been online today has probably already heard, the Irish poet (and Nobel laureate) Seamus Heaney died today.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I knew Heaney, but he was to more more than simply a name signed to incredible verse (although he was that too).  His daughter spent a year at my high school -- she was a year or two below me -- and during that year he came to speak at my school.  I remember asking him a question during the Q&A; what he answered wasn't quite what I meant to ask, but it was sort of thrilling anyway.

Then, in college, I went to Harvard, where he was teaching, and I took his course on Modern British and Irish poetry.  It was a great class, and I remember a great deal of the poetry we read in it.  (We did a day on Heaney himself of course -- we couldn't not; a guest lecturer, professor Helen Vendler, came in and gave the lecture on that day.)  I also remember bits and pieces of things he said in class.  (From the first day, winding up talking about the class: "Tough grading -- nothing for nothing.")  He wasn't a perfect teacher -- he had the bad habit of quoting poems he almost, but didn't quite, know from memory, when we all had the texts open in front of us: the mistakes grated.  But he was a good one, and I learned a lot.

A number of years later I saw him on Mass Ave, across from Harvard yard.  I introduced myself as a former student.  In memory, he pretended to recognize me, but I quite doubt he did (I certainly wouldn't have, in his place.  Maybe he was better with faces than I.)  He had won the Nobel prize, and I asked if he was still teaching.  Some, he said; but he limited things so that he didn't have to grade papers any more.  (He hadn't graded them in the class I had with him; like nearly every Harvard lecture class, they were graded by TAs.)

And then we said goodbye.

The poem of his that I didn't know, that I've seen most quoted today which I like best, is actually from his translation/adaptation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes (quoted variously here and here).  Here are the lines being quoted:
Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.
This passage seems to have been separately published under the title "Doubletake", but I'm not quite sure about that; it's definitely from The Cure of Troy (pp. 77-78, spoken by the Chorus).

Now I guess I need to track down the whole thing.

RIP, Professor Heaney.

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