Last night I got to go hear a poetry reading by one of my favorite poets ever, the nobel prize winning Seamus Heaney. He is doing a tour of the US and luckily for me one of his four stops was at a university only 15 minutes away.
I came a half hour early and the room was already half way full...but I still found a seat only four rows back, right in view of the sign language translators (a special treat for me, since I know a little sign).
He started out the night by reading a passage from the story of Beowulf that he had translated. The man who was translating this into sign did a masterful job--signing so expressively that I decided I'd have the rest of the night to watch the poet, and watched him sign in stead.
As he went on to other poems I found I enjoyed what he said "around" the poems nearly as much as the poems themselves. He was surpirzingly humorous, something I had not expected, but thoroughly enjoyed. And I appreciated that he didn't shy away of offering introductory "footnotes" of sorts to most of the poems he read. I find this really helps peel back the layors of poetry, but some poets don't like to do this type of exposition, feeling the poem should stand alone. I'm glad Seamus Heaney isn't of that camp.
There were some poems that were new to me, and many that were familiar. Personal Helicon has not been one of my favorites, but in his reading of it, I found a new liking for it. I could hear the hollow sound of the bucket clanking down, see the sky mirrored in the water. Heaney joked in introduction that this was a poem he wrote in his youth, and like all poems of youth, had a bit of narcissism in it.
His tone changed as he moved on to some of his poems about the Troubles in Ireland. He started by explaining about how the bog people, ancient victims or ritual sacrifice discovered in the bogs, became juxtiposed to him to the with the many people "sacrificed" in that conflict. He followed by reading one of his Bog Poems, The Tollund Man.
Here is a reading of this poem he did previously, elsewhere:
(Punishment, another of his Bog Poems, was the
Then he read Casualty, a poem about a man he knew who had been killed in an explosion during the Troubles, and the emotion in his voice betrayed how still present this loss was, though the poem was written many years ago.
In both Casualty and a poem he read later, At the Wellhead, he quoted people he knew, and as he read those lines I could hear that he was saying them with their voice, as he remembered THEM saying theose line. That's something you just don't catch in the same way when you're reading the poems from the page, though you can guess at it.
He ended the night with the same poem I quoted earlier here, when I first found out about this even, "Postscript."
Thanks Nora Hurab for letting me use this picture.
Baylor's Jones Concert Hall was a beautiful backdrop for
the night. I loved the artistry of that pipe organ!
After his last poem, there was a question and answer session. The whole place was silent when they asked anyone who had a question to raise their hand--not one hand raised. I would like to say at this point "And then I raised mine." But unfortunately I sat there dumb...here was my chance and I couldn't think of ONE question to ask! Oh, I can think of them now...but hindsight is 20x20.
I did however take out a pen at this point to jot down some quotes from the questions he did answer (which others finally braved raising their hands):
One question was related to a a paper he had written about the conflict in Palestine. He was asked "What hope can you see for that situation?"
"You don't SEE hope ever," he responded, "You see see what you have to hope against."
Another memorable quote was about poetry...
"A poem of locating yourself...or dislocating yourself" he added with a smile.
I also thought it was funny that when he was asked about form, he said he "Didn't think about it very much."
He talked about how when he was in California at Berkely there were some who believed in "Naked" poetry...that only open form poetry allowed for freedom, but he said that sometimes there was freedom in using rhyme too.
"I have no prejudice for or against for formal work."