Some things settle in the mind for good. I remember little else about high school, but I remember with perfect clarity the day I spent at a poetry conference at Adelphi University on my native Long Island.
There were plenty of poets on hand, but the featured speaker was Seamus Heaney, an Irishman who was far better known than most poets ever get these days. The modern measure of fame for poets, at least in America, is that people outside academia have heard of them and may even know a line or two of their poetry.
It wasn't always that way. Poets once had great stature. In the old days, the kings of Ireland had to host poets for as long as the poets wanted to be hosted. If that's apocryphal, it shouldn't be, because the education of the ancient bards was an enormous undertaking that consumed years of their lives. They weren't just poets, but historians. The past would have decayed without them. Who deserves unending hospitality more than that?
Anyway, Seamus Heaney was at Adelphi, and so was I, wearing a corduroy jacket of the sort that I supposed poets and other writers wore.
This was nearly 30 years ago. It occurs to me that Heaney back then was about the age I am now. He was famous enough but would become even more famous 11 years later when he won the Nobel Prize in literature.
He had a head of frizzy white hair and was wearing tweeds and smoking. I couldn't get anywhere close to him, but I stood and watched as he engaged affably with a long line of professors and students. He looked exactly like a poet, an Irish poet, was supposed to look.
I wondered if he drank like a poet — I was also under the spell of Dylan Thomas at the time, who had boozed himself to death — and was gratified to hear Heaney's quip that there is no such thing as a large whiskey.
I eventually grew out of my idea that poets were all tortured drunks. That's because I moved past my star struck admiration of Heaney and began to read him in earnest, and to love what I found: poems expertly hewn, with a voice like no other. He may have enjoyed whiskey, but it never dampened his gift.
Indeed, he wrote with immense power almost to his dying day, which came Friday at a Dublin hospital. He was 74 and had been failing since suffering a stroke some years ago.
One of the marvels of the man is that he even turned the experience of his stroke into poetry. In a piece called "Miracle," he likens his own experience of being carried, paralyzed and helpless, to the biblical episode in which four men carry a cripple to be healed by Christ.
I don't have a good critical vocabulary, so I reached out to another marvelous poet, Lee Upton, writer-in-residence at Lafayette College and a longtime admirer of Heaney. She saw him last spring, in fact, at a conference in Boston.
"He and another Nobel Laureate, the poet Derek Walcott, were on stage for the conference's keynote presentation," Upton said. "When Walcott spoke of silence and how poetry exhibits "a stillness at the core," Heaney added that poetry also "dwells in clamor." He spoke of the "heft" and "torque" of each word in a strong poem and how poetry grows out of not only our private and solitary inclinations but also out of the bustle and business of life."
Heft. Torque. Words like those, blunt as an anvil, were the core of his voice. He was a master of the lyric and of storytelling. When he translated "Beowulf," for example, he began as any storyteller settling by the fireside begins: "So."
He turned his pen on Northern Ireland's sectarian strife. He wrote of his rural childhood, of faith, of language itself.
One of his great poems is "Station Island," in which the poet goes on a religious pilgrimage and meets, among others, the ghost of James Joyce, who scolds him for spending too much time reflecting on how the Irish speak and write in the language of their oppressors.
"'Who cares,'/He jeered, 'any more? The English language belongs to us … ."
Lamenting that the poet who gave us those lines is now silenced, I wanted to see if anyone cares much about poetry anymore. I know they do in Ireland, but what about our valley?
I was cheered to learn from Andris Danielsons of Easton's Quadrant Book Mart that plenty of people come in to browse through the poetry section. A few, I hope, are seeking books by Heaney.
"This guy was enormously important to poetry," Danielsons said. "The Irish have a gift for language, I think — they are better at it than most."
Cheers to that.
Upton said the emotional range of Heaney's poems "is wonderfully steep and wide."
"We turn to his poems for their inspired lyricism, their dynamism, their hopefulness and even their combative nature," she said. "He wasn't about to let poetry escape from its roots in the body and our common vulnerabilities. Nor did he soft-pedal our complex fates by failing to deal with tensions in both the psyche and in the external world of politics and sectarian violence."
I'll end this with a last anecdote from Adelphi. The conference was ending and I had finally screwed up the courage to approach Heaney for an autograph. I had a few volumes of his poems but had forgotten to bring one, and nervously tried to explain this lapse as others waited their turn.
He took my notebook and signed his name. Twice.
Seamus Heaney. Seamus Heaney.
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