based on a talk delivered at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, Boston, March 8, 2013
Back in the Eighties, during the long twentieth century, the early soundings of globalization were beginning to be heard around Cambridge every spring, which happened to be when Seamus Heaney usually returned to join his fellow itinerate bards Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky in raising the spirit level of American poetry. I’m grateful for this chance to celebrate what was once an annual rite.
Long before there were hedge funds, there were hedge schools, those singular Irish institutions of instruction outside the academy. One such was located far from the self-regarding gaze of Mother Harvard, on Magnolia Street near Inman Square, in the second-floor apartment of Lynn Focht and Sven Birkerts. There our syllabus was life; our required text, the world. In place of Irish grammar, we had literature, with a special focus on Irish poetry and single-malt. Preferably Yeats; preferably Jameson’s. Two frequent lecturers at these intimate sessions were Seamus and his wife, Marie Heaney. Occasionally Derek Walcott would stop by to clarify a point about syncopation and Caribbean or Elizabethan literature. Homework was done on the spot and might involve scatting a Shakespeare sonnet that others would try to identify through the gossamer of random syllables. Rhythm will out: more often than not, the master’s pentimento shone through. These were evenings of literary mayhem, where the games also included a pantomime called “The Deaths of Poets in Hand Gestures.” Discussing the work of contemporaries, the cruelest thing I ever heard Seamus say about a peer was “One thinks of Homer . . .” No more needed saying.
Heaney the man embodies the virtues of the verse in much the same way as his poetry echoes the potencies of the world. In him, genius wasn’t severed from those essential human qualities of warmth, generosity, and loyalty without which we’re hardly worthy of the name. His presence, in person and on the page, was, and remains, a summons to attention. An evening with the Heaneys, whose circles were vaster than any I’ve encountered since, yet who always seemed to have room for one more, almost always ended in singing. In their company no one was allowed to hide or play the wallflower. All had to participate. And when your turn came, the preference was for a tune that echoed something of your origins—though you could always dodge the requirement by reciting a poem. Then there was the afternoon when the drawing room door opened to reveal Mr. Ted Hughes in country clothes—tweed, vest, twill—and when he began to talk, one had the untranslatable experience of hearing how Stonehenge might sound if rocks could speak.
I once said to someone (maybe Heaney himself) that Seamus has the uncanny ability of making you feel comfortable in your own home. This isn’t to suggest, however, that his art is in any way safe. Indeed, a large part of my attraction to it was that it was anything but, and Heaney’s own antennae vibrated with particular responsiveness to signals from troubled and intemperate zones. In the spread and gnarl of Heaney’s work there can be a subtle snarl and a glint of blade keeping us rightly on edge. As the child of immigrants who’d fled Eastern Europe after World War II, I tuned in with particular attention to the reverberations of a past that was troublingly familiar—maybe because it was steeped in troubles of its own. In his influential essay “The Impact of Translation,” Heaney observed: “We who live and have our being in English know…that our own recent history of consumerist freedom and eerie nuclear security seems less authentic to us than the tragically tested lives of those who lived beyond the pale of all this fiddle.” And: “poets in English have felt compelled to turn their gaze east and have been encouraged to concede that the locus of greatness is shifting away from their language.” At the same time he concludes by noting that this poetry of witness was oddly resuscitative, thus finding hope where I had only reckoned despair. It remains to be seen how our poetry responds to the fact that we now have our own gulags to account for (housing, among others, Bradley Manning). I once asked him what united him with two poets to whom he was bound in friendship—Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes—and he replied, “la violencia.” Different kinds of violence in all three poets called for different responses, of course. In Heaney’s case, the oblique approach hit the mark square, with verse that satisfied the demands of conscience while fulfilling the expectations of art.
My charge today is to say a few words about Heaney the prose writer, though of course I first came to him through the poetry. What’s striking is the continuity between the two. Heaney is as subversive in his prose as in his verse. His essays about the great poets of the world never feels like writing about “literature,” in quotes, but rather like vital human communication, the proverbial message in a bottle, the news from somewhere, the hunted news that stays news. Ranging around the globe and across time to negotiate the tension between suffering and song, they simultaneously offer a crash course in the high moments in the history of world poetry. I’d like to offer just two more examples.
Writing about Christopher Marlowe, Heaney notes: “I remain convinced by what my own reading experience tells me: namely, that some works transmit an immediately persuasive signal and retain a unique staying power over time. . . . The works continue to combine the sensation of liberation with that of consolidation; having once cleared a new space on the literary and psychic ground, they go on to offer, at each re-reading, the satisfaction of a foundation being touched and the excitement of an energy being released.” He comments on how “a generation recognizes that they are in the presence of one of the great unfettered events which constitute a definite stage in the history of poetry.” He may have been speaking about himself.
He further observes that “there is always a kind of homeopathic benefit for the reader in experiencing the shifts and extensions which constitute the life of a poem. An exuberant rhythm, a display of metrical virtuosity, some rising intellectual ground successfully surmounted—experiencing things like these gratifies and furthers the range of the mind’s and body’s pleasures, and helps the reader to obey the command: Nosceteipsum. know thyself.”
While never quite trespassing onto Marlovian territory, Heaney was certainly no stranger to the Bohemian grove, where he seemed as much at ease as he was when high-flying with dukes and earls. I remember running into him late one night at a party in a slightly disreputable, smoke-filled, fourth-floor, one-bedroom walk-up in a dubious part of Cambridge. He and Marie had just arrived. They were in high spirits and ready to engage the thick crowd. They might have been better decked out than some of the others, but they blended in swiftly. Seamus apologized for arriving so late. How had his evening been going? Oh very nicely, very nicely. Where had they been? Oh, dinner. Yes? With whom? Oh with the emperor and empress of Japan. Oh; and so they sailed into the rabble, and happy to be there.
My final example of his rectifying prose comes not from a published essay but rather from one of the best exchanges I’ve ever heard during a Q&A. It occurred at the end of a lecture when someone from the audience asked how he understood Joyce’s evolution as a writer. He answered off the cuff: with Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce was learning his instrument, which just happened to be the language of the colonizers; in Ulysses he wanted to show the British just what could be done with their language; and in Finnegan’s Wake he wanted to remind them that theirs was just one stream in an ocean of the world’s tongues. Because, I might add, the proper government of the tongue is the tongue set free. The freest speech always contains a kind of poetry, and as Heaney remarked, “poetry is its own vindicating force.”
In his person and in his poetry he brings the laws of conscience back to a language that seems anxious to reduce them to a mere epiphenomenon, a coincidence of brainwaves rather than a kind of implanted magnetic north by which to steer. In Heaney, vision fuses with craft, forging a vessel to ferry us safely past Circe’s enchanted isles, all the way home. Because his imaginings have always been fully engaged with the gross universe, he hasn’t had to recant la Wallace Stevens, whose chilling question to himself in his late poems is “Have I lived a skeleton’s life, as a disbeliever in reality?” Heaney continues to uphold a grudgingly affirming flame against the ever-present gloom, a torch of tongues to sing back the night, rendered fraternal by his words’ lambency. His poems and essays remain capable of infusing us with a sense of tenable impossibilities, lurking in every moment and in everyone with the wit to notice. I don’t think I ever understood as intensely what Pound meant when he wrote about gathering from the air “a live tradition” as I did that afternoon at Coole Park in Ireland when Seamus led a few of us first to Yeats’s tower, then to that open, nippled lake on which drifted half a dozen swans, no more disturbed by the light drizzle of the soft day than we.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College. (updated 9/2018)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.