By Joseph Hurley
SEAMUS HEANEY. At Unterberg Poetry Center’s 60th Anniversary Celebration, 92nd Street Y Tisch Center for the Arts, 1395 Lexington Ave., NYC. On Monday, Sept. 28.
Seamus Heaney must rank among the most generous and hardest working of poets. Since 1995, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he has often put himself at the service of his craft, publishing abundantly and taking to the podium with regularity, most recently on Monday evening, Sept. 28, when the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y celebrated its 60th anniversary.
After a brief introduction by Harvard’s Henri Cole, the affable, Derry-born Heaney faced a full house in the venerable institution’s wood-paneled auditorium and said that he, like the Poetry Center, was in his "60th year to heaven."
Decked out in a gray suit, blue shirt and what appeared to be an Irish hand-knit tie in tones of purple and violet, the poet, his face, as always, set in a half-smile or more, addressed the capacity audience as though they were friends on whom he’d dropped in for a chat before moving on to whatever obligation might claim his next.
His white hair, combed forward onto his brow as always, seemed a bit sparse this time, allowing just a little more of his scalp, as pink as that of a baby, to peer through.
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Heaney, making remarks to illuminate and clarify his verse, often seems about to put the poetry aside entirely and it would be easy to get the idea that, wonderfully as the Nobelist reads his own work, he might once in a while prefer to just talk, going planlessly from one subject to another, moving gracefully wherever his fast-working mind and wit might take him.
Heaney devoted last Monday’s reading to recent work, much of it from a new book, "Opened Ground, Poems: 1966-1996," which will be published early this winter. The poet inadvertently demonstrated his amazing productivity by reading a handful of verses too new even to be included in the forthcoming volume.
Heaney’s subject matter ranged from a tribute to his brother Hugh to a searing recollection of the murder of a man whom he’d known in Derry who, just three days after "Bloody Sunday," became a victim of the casual violence that for so many years plagued Northern Ireland. Nothing seemed to please the Poetry Center’s audience more than "Digging," a poem in which Heaney, after describing the labors of a farmer unearthing potatoes with an implement, commented, "I’ll dig with my pen, my shovel."
After living mainly in Dublin for a number of years, and teaching in the U.S. for much of the last decade, Heaney’s speech, particularly on the platform, appears to be moving toward the kind of good, general tone sometimes referred to as "mid-Atlantic." Hearing him for the first time, it could at this point be a bit difficult to know precisely what his actual geographic origins might have been.
Heaney told his audience that his move to Dublin wasn’t politically motivated, that he hadn’t been burned out or otherwise frightened out of Derry, as it is sometimes assumed. "I wanted to work," the poet said by way of explanation. He let it go at that.
Before reading from "Station Island," a volume from 1985, he defined the work as "a book about ghosts," and, on another level, about "escaping into pleasure."
Never hesitant to translate a bit of the Irish language for his hearers, or to share a bit of arcane folklore, Heaney told the story of a watchman who, having witnessed a killing from his perch atop a wall, refused to reveal what he’d seen, saying that "the ox is on my tongue," a phrase that seemed to delight the poet almost as much as it did the Poetry Center audience.
As always, much of Heaney’s most intense communication in an auditorium filled with admiring listeners came when the verses were at their most personal and intimate. He read a series of poems he called "Alphabets," in which he detailed the learning processes through which he had passed, starting with becoming able to recognize the letters of the alphabet ("A" was a little like a kind of ladder) through the subtler phases of learning the formal complications involved in writing poetry.
The poet admitted that, as a younger writer, he had "been hostile to all forms of pentameter."
He recalled how, years after his official schooling had concluded, he would encounter "smiling public men" and remember the performances they had given in school productions of Shakespeare’s "The Tempest," "Twelfth Night," "Macbeth," "Hamlet," and the rest, often as not playing the Bard’s women.
One boy, he recalled, had been a particularly effective Portia, a fact Heaney recalled every time he came upon this particular schoolmate as an adult.
Among Heaney’s most effective Poetry Center moments came when the poet described the slow decline into old age of the family’s beloved dog, Carlo.
Heaney closed his rich, 80-minute reading with comments about the death, on Jan. 28, 1996, of the poet Joseph Brodsky, who had been a friend and, at least once, a traveling companion. The day Brodsky died, Heaney recalled, was a bitterly cold one, a day on which "Dublin airport was locked in frost."
It was almost the same late January date on which William Butler Yeats had died in 1939, a point that seemed to strike Seamus Heaney and his audience as both notable and entirely appropriate.
After commenting that Brodsky had written an "Audenesque" tribute to T.S. Eliot when the St. Louis-born poet died in 1965, Heaney read a poem he had written in honor of his friend and colleague, using, as Brodsky had, a rhyme scheme W.B. Yeats had often employed.
Following the reading, Heaney moved to the Y’s Buttenweiser Hall, where, in the course of a reception, he and the current poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, whose stage adaptation of Dante’s "Inferno" is another feature of the Poetry Center’s celebration, were crowned with rather formidable-looking laurel wreaths.
Wearing the obviously weighty decoration at a jaunty angle over his smiling face, Seamus Heaney, for a moment at least, looked for all the world like W.C. Fields.