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Seamus Heaney: Dry Cleaning and a Nearly Unknown Poem
My Harvard Square Neighbor
"I have always thought of poems as stepping stones in one's own sense of oneself. Every now and again, you write a poem that gives you self-respect and steadies your going a little bit farther out in the stream. At the same time, you have to conjure the next stepping stone because the stream, we hope, keeps flowing." ―Seamus Heaney And the stream definitely overflowed in the best way. Seamus Heaney published twelve books of poems, five selected editions, four books of prose, nine books of translations, and over one hundred booklets and limited editions. Perhaps it's no wonder that for a time, Heaney's poems made-up two thirds of the sales of all living poets in the U.K. The above sentences blow my mind. A young poet from Castledawson cornering the poetry sales market of the entire UK. I wish I knew the story behind that story. What was it like to encounter Death of a Naturalist when it was first published in 1966? Frog spawn? A father's 'straining rump'? I have so many favorites but here are three: Digging (now the national poem of Ireland) Postscript (and what a treat to hear him read it) and Far Away (printed further below). From 1985 to 2006 Heaney was in residence at Harvard University on a half-year tenured contract. Nice work if you can get it. And although it feels as if I've known his work all my life, it simply isn't true. I met the man before I ever read the poems: at the second and final party I crashed at Harvard, Heaney was there. Perhaps it was a launch party for the Harvard Review or some undergraduate event with wine and cheese.
I remember a young woman dressed in velvet burgundy that I only saw from behind. The dress came off her shoulders in a deep V; she was bent close to hear what the not- yet-anointed Nobel prize-winning poet was saying. I still remember her exquisite skin: airbrushed before airbrushing existed. I watched as if through bulletproof glass. Whomever I was with that night, told me Heaney was the most famous living Irish poet and that he came to Cambridge every spring. It was 1989, Seeing Things was not yet published; The Spirit Level, still a few years off. After that party, I would see Heaney in his oversized tweeds hurrying along Plimpton Street quite regularly. Usually, he'd be carrying his dry cleaning in a plastic cover, his arm straight out in front of him as if the suit were leading him down the sidewalk and not the other way around. I learned he lived at Adams House on Bow Street directly across from my first apartment (an over-the-top economic divide existing from one side of the street to the other). I found it funny and rather embarrassing that across the street from this white-haired, world-famous poet, I was staying up into the early hours writing my first real poems. Far Away When I answered that I came from “far away” The policeman at the roadblock snapped “where’s that”? He’d only half heard what I said and thought It was the name of some place up the country. And now it is both where I have been living And where I left --- a distance still to go Like starlight that is light years on the go From faraway and takes light years returning. Seamus Heaney This eight-line Heaney poem appeared in The New Yorker on December 18, 1994 and for the next decade I kept it inside my wallet; now it lives on my refrigerator door. For years, I'd read it at the beginning of my poetry readings. I still experience chills every time I come across it---the second stanza one more time: And now it is both where I have been living And where I left --- a distance still to go Like starlight that is light years on the go From faraway and takes light years returning. Somehow Heaney was writing about me, my life as well as his own. I'd recently returned to the US after almost a decade of living in too many places to name. Coming home did not feel easy or safe. There was, a distance still to go and like starlight, I might stay far away even if it looked like I was home. Heaney never published this poem in any of his collections (if I am wrong, please let me know!) and I've never seen it discussed. (I just googled it and ironically, this is all that popped up.) I don't know why except it perhaps told too much about his own relationship to Northern Ireland. In my humble assessment, it should so clearly have been collected in his 100 Poems, but no one asked me.
I've put off writing about Seamus Heaney because I feel so inadequate to the task. I've not mentioned the beauty of his double-barreled words, his matching of sonics and sense; his ability to bring you inside the experience of the world with him. Once, a year or less before his death, I saw Seamus Heaney take the stage with his friend, the poet Derek Walcott. They interviewed each other, shared poems, told stories and made each other laugh. It's a vision of poetry and poets that I keep close. Two absolute geniuses of the art---inviting the rest of us in, inviting us to take part.
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