Saint Seamus the Poet

His face seems to be in every little corner of Ireland now, like a martyred saint. There in the Armagh County Museum, among the local paintings on exhibit, “The Poet” is clearly him, Seamus Heaney.Heaney mug 3 I see other versions of that face appearing “like a slit-eyed potato” as he said of own countenance – on the walls of pubs along with Guinness signs and flags. In Derry, in Dublin, from Wicklow to Belfast, Nobel-laureated Seamus Heaney is everywhere, not yet a full year since he died at age 74 last August. The lively spirit that lives on, the face merely the sign of it now, was captured well in a New York Times multimedia feature.

But as I keep encountering people’s familiarity with Heaney, I sense something down-to-earth and personal too, as if he were a beloved uncle, a friend. A young woman having tea with her mum at Donnelly’s, a happy pub in Barna on Galway Bay, was there to visit her sister in Galway. When I told her – over the boisterous pub talk and Irish band — that I had once met Heaney, she brightened and began transmitting to her mum everything I said about my brief brush with The Poet. (My last impression of that pub was of this young woman sitting in with the band, swaying as she sang in lovely harmony with the old man playing guitar.) She and her mom were from County Wicklow, where Heaney wrote his Glanmore Sonnets.

(A taste from one:
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow. )

Ireland loves her poets, living and dead. That rings clear with the John Hewitt Society “summer school” here in Armagh this week. All week, a few hundred poets, novelists, playwrights, newspaper columnists and sweet Northern Irish people aspiring to those vocations have come to this 12th annual festival to honor a poet raised in this county. John Hewitt must have raised some vital questions about how we all should live locally but in circles of the wider world, for this conference opened with a lofty lecture by the elected president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins (a spry poet himself) on the week’s theme – “Regionalism: The Last Chance? Local identity in a shrinking world.” There’s a pub in Belfast also named for John Hewitt, a unique nonprofit business that donates its earnings to the unemployed. We had lunch there with playwright Martin Lynch.)

But the loss of Seamus Heaney is much fresher than that of Hewitt, a real sorrow in the flesh. I think everyone felt that with the lecture of poet and close Heaney friend Peter Fallon when he spoke in the main hall (a space like Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Theatre piled up with timbered balconies). Fallon gave the first of what is to be an annual “Heaney-O’Discoll Memorial Lecture” at the Hewitt festival. Dennis O’Driscoll, another beloved Irish poet, died in 2012. Fallon was close to both men, and seemed genuinely still in grief. His lecture was a transcendent prose poem. You can’t find it on the web. Sorry. It was in the moment, a large experience in a shrinking world. It was mostly about Heaney and his poetry – how he uses nouns and verbs, and in particular, the word love. He loved. He loved this thing and that, because it exists, and because the word for it and the metaphor for it are so wonderful.

My Heaney story? I was a Nieman fellow, a mid-career battery-charge for journalists who get to spend a year at Harvard. It was 1986-87, the year Harvard was celebrating its 350th anniversary and one of the years when Heaney was lecturing there on British and Irish poetry. I took that class. He also came to the Nieman house for an afternoon of beer and talk with us fellows, and gave me a book he signed, Ireland’s Field Day, collected essays by a movement he had joined to offer the arts as a means of reconciling the warring factions of Ireland. Heaney was also commissioned to write a poem for the 350th celebration. His reading of that poem, a tricky French form called a villanelle, plunged so deep into my hearing I can still recall his hard “r”s and his rolling voice as it boomed out over the Yarrrrrd. It was my invitation to harvest all that Harvard had to offer me that year, the books of its “VE-RI-TAS” shield unclasped and the Harvard gates, unbarrrred (but not un-barded).

Villanelle for an Anniversary

 A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard,
The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

 The maps dreamt on like moondust. Nothing stirred.
The future was a verb in hibernation.
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

 Before the classic style, before the clapboard,
All through the small hours of an origin,
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

 Night passage of a migratory bird.
Gownflap. Like a homing pigeon
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

 Was that his soul (look) sped to its reward
By grace or works? A shooting star? An omen?
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

 Begin again where frosts and tests were hard.
Find yourself or founder. Here, imagine
A spirit moves, John Harvard walks the yard,
The books stand open and the gates unbarred.



  1. Joe and Emily · · Reply

    What a delicious dessert wrapping up your feast of blogs. We remember when you hobnobbed at
    Harvard with the barrrrd himself. Yr. Fans, The A .P.’s

  2. Doug, thank you for this beautiful, sensory-rich blog of your experience now in Ireland and Harvard. I like that he loved. I love his villanelle for the anniversary. His writing humbles my own. Happy travels! Peace, Patty

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