Monday, September 2, 2013

Seamus Heaney

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I was talking to mom today about the passing of poet Seamus Heaney. She asked, 'is he Irish?.' I told her that all of the great poets are Irish, to which she replied, 'yes, I suppose, it is the melancholy that is in them.'

Yes, the melancholy. I know something of that myself with the wee bit of Irish that I am. I first was introduced to Heaney in graduate school. I took an Irish Studies course, and Heaney was on heavy rotation for the poetry section of it. I knew him as I read his work. I understood it to the very core of who I am, and I understood the language that he spoke beyond the metaphor, beyond the intended meaning of the poem.

Each year, when I teach high school students through a unit of the Holocaust and genocide, I always pull out Heaney's Punishment. Elie Wiesel implores us to bear witness. That silence is approval. But in Heaney's poem, the speaker understands the very human possibility that 'I almost love you/ but would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence.' Why do we cast these stones of silence, I ask my students? Working in a community riddled with crime, and the disturbing 'no trick rule' that is employed, we can answer this. Wiesel has us singing with the angels, where Heaney has us rolling 'round in the muck with what is all of humanity.

A few years back, Heaney lectured at the Art Institute. The tickets were $50 ... rock star prices. I would have paid anything to see him, but it sold out quicker that I could dial the number. Fortunately, he came back 'round. In Poetry magazine's 100th anniversary year, an evening of Seamus Heaney was offered to the public at no charge. I made the call and was able to reserve two tickets. I was so excited. And happy to share the evening with a friend, also a poet. But it wasn't meant to be. I had only the thought of poetry on my mind, and his was colored by what he thought was another motive. In neither the time, nor place, he decided to break my heart.

I very nearly left and went home. But I knew that if I sat in a dimly lit auditorium and soaked in some of what Heaney had to offer, I would follow through with what my intention was to be for the evening. I arrived early, and so was seated close to the stage. Slightly hunched over and shuffling a little toward the podium, tears fell like a veil over my face. I may as well have been in church for the silence and the hum of a group of people who had gathered to listen to the word, or shall I say words.

Those moments when I heard Heaney recite his poetry, and sing his little ditties between, I felt a soul that held me divinely. All things happen for a reason. I was meant to see him that night. The other  man... his soul was meant to be exposed to me. His is not nearly as knowing, and his words never as dear.

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