UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Seamus Heaney: Flowers Harvard Yard With A Night Of Illumination

Monday evening, November 8, 2004, a special, limited, intimate engagement in the historical Memorial Church, located at Harvard University’s famous Harvard Yard, and sponsored in conjunction with the Office for the Arts at Harvard, accommodated a variety of students as well as lucky members of the general public for an intimate night of poetry, written and read by resident Professor Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The gracefully aging sixty-five year old, County Derry born Heaney showed that he was still capable of winning over a crowd with his knowledge, unique poetry, remarkable story telling, Irish wit and the gift of the gab. Heaney read “The Grauballe Man”, “Summer1969,” and “Hercules and Anteus,” from his award winning book North, where he speaks out about “tragedy of a people in a place,” mainly using metaphorical references of Scandinavian and English invasions and applying them to the violence in Northern Ireland, he was namely speaking of the Irish Catholics of his homeland. It interested the audience immensely, was well accepted and applauded by the studious gathering of spectators.

Heaney read a poem titled, “Helmet,” which he wrote after the events that took place on September 11th, describing the dedicated firefighters struggle. Later, he spoke of a revisiting of Sophocles, before his Beowulf era, in a poem called, “Ajax,” about the disintegration of a warrior, which he dutifully translated it’s foreign meanings into his new poem.

Unannounced by any specific titles, Heaney read some poems he wrote that related to death and gruesome images of skulls, bones, destruction, which actually seemed to make him feel a little uncomfortable when he saw the crowd of listeners squirming and mumbling under their breaths and after realizing he was speaking in a Church, so he immediately changed his tune, saying, “I’m not going to read this one. Let me tell you about my upcoming book.” He then graced the audience with a story behind the new book, which spoke of hope, new life and a new millennium. He did only what any great speaker could do, which was to win back his audience. He mentioned that on, “December 31, 1999, a friend of mine-a blacksmith from my old place-took his anvil striking it 12 times to ring in the New Year.”

He couldn’t be sure if anyone had heard about this story, but sure enough they had, when Barney Devlin’s cousin held up his cellular phone high as a horse’s ear, letting all have a listen. Through this story, Heaney came up with the title of his new book in progress entitled, The Midnight Anvil, which he did not set a release date of, but alerted the audience of its existence. Where Heaney had originally stirred some minor tension with a few dark poems, the aftermath of his latter words immediately turned a negative situation into a positive one, using his speaking ability, wisdom, experience and calm composure, showing why he is revered as a literary god. Everything that followed was dedicated to new poems obviously brilliant and completely uplifting.

Very few writers can boast such a unique and wide array of published works like Seamus Heaney has had over the years which include books, articles, essays and even over thirty-three, full-length studies published about Heaney. And this poetry reading informed us on another book coming soon.

As I read the play Translations by Brian Friel and reviewed the live performance of this particular play, in a back issue of the Mass Media, I was also reading some of Heaney’s poetry and some of my own connections evolved with the two, who both seem to admire the classics, mainly Greek mythology. One of Heaney’s new poems that he read at Harvard was referenced to a Sophocles’ Philoctetes, which was written by Heaney for Field Day, was translated from The Cure at Troy, which possessed the pure classical imagery of a destructive war with immense tribal vengeance which Heaney used to bridge the gap between tribal and ethical reasoning. It’s no wonder why Heaney also worked with Friel and Actor Stephen Rae, in an effort to help revive Irish Theatre, in their theatre company called Field Day, where a common ground came full circle in Irish tribal unity.

What cam I say about Seamus Heaney, that hasn’t been said before? Even though I try, like many have tried, giving it their best shot, it’s a difficult task to get inside the mind of a living legend, or any legend for that matter. Heaney is among the most learned of contemporary poets. His complexities were spawned from the teachings of his predecessors who were English, Irish or American institutions in their own ways: W.B.Yeats, James Joyce, Patrick Kavanaugh, William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, and classical writers such as Dante, or the author of Beowulf, and many more masters, have paved a strong educational background, influencing Heaney in his own writing. With so many deep literary studies on Heaney’s body of published works, as well as a colossal number of books written by other authors, critiquing and contrasting his works to these other master poets, Heaney has been able to intertwine his own beliefs regarding social concern, picturesque landscapes, and heartfelt family affections to name only a few.

Through his poetry, Heaney seems to reach out with his words into dimensions that other authors dream about. His wisdom is accessible and his popularity in the literary world is enormous. Because Heaney writes with such complexity and verve, I often find him sometimes overwhelming because his complex notions are sometimes difficult to decipher, without knowing enough about Irish culture and historical events in Ireland. The focus on Northern Ireland and it’s beyond bearing stresses put on the population by the conflict, the fear, the betrayals and the outright murders have pushed Heaney to capture feelings of all sides of this ongoing conflict. This is definitely a difficult thing to do, as for most Irish have chosen which side of the conflict they are for and seldom have unbiased opinions.

Heaney’s poems are deep as his Irish roots and almost as complex. Much can be learned from this man about the art of language through poetry, history, social, religious and economic issues, as well as Irish culture. If you get the chance while he is still going strong, in this millennium, it is a privilege to join in the Heaney experience. You don’t want to miss it and you don’t have to be Irish to appreciate his poetry. All you need is an open mind.