Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013
What you may not know about me is that, once upon a time, I went to graduate school fully intending to focus my efforts on Irish literature. I had the opportunity to meet Seamus Heaney on a couple of occasions, and to hear him read several times, both in the States and during my semester abroad in Dublin. So it was with some sadness that I learned this morning that he had passed away.
Here is what you don’t know. Some of this has to do with Heaney, some more of it with Seamus Deane (who was a visiting professor at Carleton one term and from whom I took a course), but most of it has to do with Irish literature in general. As an English major in college, I took plenty of literature courses, and all of that literature was mediated through the printed page, of course. And the page, it flattens things. Birth and death dates follow the names of the writers included in our Norton anthologies, important numbers, but ultimately pretty meaningless to a 20 year old. When I started studying Irish literature, it was a bit newer, certainly, but as it stretched to the current day, to authors still living, and later to authors that I was meeting, literature changed a bit for me. This is the analogy my undergraduate mind devised: as I started out, the texts I was reading were like stars in the night sky, bits of brilliance against a much vaster sea of dark. What Irish literature did for me was to flip that metaphor on its head–I began to see literature itself as the field and the textstars as intensities rather than disconnected objects.
A big part of that was that the writers I met in Ireland all knew each other, and wrote both for and to each other. It may seem obvious to me now, but they were part of an ecology, a network, a community, and something was lost when you read them in isolation from the others. They weren’t writing in isolation and so they changed the way I read–little wonder that when, in a few years, I encountered what rhetoric and composition had to say about the myth of the isolated, originary writer, I was already primed for that work to resonate with me. And while it may be a stretch from the outside to connect the 20-year old me stepping out of a Dublin pub with the me who’s focused on ecologies and networks for the past several years, for me it’s always made perfect sense.
So, below the fold, is Heaney’s “The Ministry of Fear,” written for Seamus Deane:
The Ministry of Fear
For Seamus Deane
Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived
In important places. The lonely scarp
Of St Columb’s College, where I billeted
For six years, overlooked your Bogside.
I gazed into new worlds: the inflamed throat
Of Brandywell, its floodlit dogtrack,
The throttle of the hare. In the first week
I was so homesick I couldn’t even eat
The biscuits left to sweeten my exile.
I threw them over the fence one night
In September 1951
When the lights of houses in the Lecky Road
Were amber in the fog. It was an act
Then Belfast, and then Berkeley.
Here’s two on’s are sophisticated,
Dabbling in verses till they have become
A life: from bulky envelopes arriving
In vacation time to slim volumes
Despatched ‘with the author’s compliments’.
Those poems in longhand, ripped from the wire spine
Of your exercise book, bewildered me-
Vowels and ideas bandied free
As the seed-pods blowing off our sycamores.
I tried to write about the sycamores
And innovated a South Derry rhyme
With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled.
Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain
Were walking, by God, all over the fine
Lawns of elocution.
Have our accents
Changed? ‘Catholics, in general, don’t speak
As well as students from the Protestant schools.’
Remember that stuff? Inferiority
Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on.
‘What’s your name, Heaney?’
On my first day, the leather strap
Went epileptic in the Big Study,
Its echoes plashing over our bowed heads,
But I still wrote home that a boarder’s life
Was not so bad, shying as usual.
On long vacations, then, I came to life
In the kissing seat of an Austin 16
Parked at a gable, the engine running,
My fingers tight as ivy on her shoulders,
A light left burning for her in the kitchen.
And heading back for home, the summer’s
Freedom dwindling night by night, the air
All moonlight and a scent of hay, policemen
Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowding round
The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing
The muzzle of a Sten gun in my eye:
‘What’s your name, driver?’
‘Seamus . .
They once read my letters at a roadblock
And shone their torches on your hieroglyphics,
‘Svelte dictions’ in a very florid hand.
Ulster was British, but with no rights on
The English lyric: all around us, though
We hadn’t named it, the ministry of fear.