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: