Thursday Dec 07

HopenthalerYear5 A Farewell to Seamus Heaney

It was one of the first readings I ever attended; I was an undergrad at SUNY Brockport, an aspiring poet, and I recall how struck I was by the majesty of his presence.  He had a toothache that day and so sipped whiskey from a Styrofoam cup during his reading. The show must go on. How cool was that for a young aspiring poet to behold!  He became an important poet for me, and he taught me lessons about the use of landscape in poetry, about how political poetry can be subtle, how silence can function as loudly as a gunshot. He taught me about the value of being humble.

I heard him read several times afterwards, and I got the chance to hang out a bit with him a few times.  As a grad student, I attended a conference in Scotland at which he was a headliner, and he was kind to me then, spending fifteen or so minutes with me after I’d waited in a long line to get a couple more books signed.  He gave me his address, and a few months later, after I’d become an editor of Kestrel, I wrote and asked him for a poem. This was after he’d won the Nobel Prize for Poetry, and I was amazed that he actually sent me something, a translation he did from the Irish of a poem called “A School of Poetry Closes.” That poem appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of Kestrel.

In later years, while I worked as Toni Morrison's assistant (she loved the guy, too), I saw him at big bashes in Princeton and at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, and he was always a gentleman, always willing to spend time with a nobody like me.

“A School of Poetry” is an homage, Tadhg Og O’Huiginn’s lament for his master, Ferga Rua, and it closes with these two stanzas which, now, take on a new meaning for me:

Through his death, I realize
How I value poetry:
O hut of our mystery, empty
and isolated always.

Aine’s son is dead.
Poetry is daunted.
A stave of the barrel is smashed
And the wall of learning broken.

Seamus sent his wife a text just before he died; Noli timere it read in Latin, Don’t be afraid.