StAnza 2010 - An evening with Seamus Heaney

An evening with Seamus Heaney

Tickets for the highlight event of this years St Andrews poetry festival - StAnza - had been sold out for weeks, for Heaney has struck a populist chord with that minority group – poetry lovers. Ever since his first major collection in 1966 The Death of a Naturalist, critics and the public have responded to his voice that resonates with a deep feeling for his land, the time honoured traditions, and the startling energy of the ordinary.

For those who do not know of him, Heaney was born in 1939 in rural Co. Derry, he was from a large catholic family, later he worked as a teacher. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 along with many other prestigious awards and has consistently produced lyrical and vigorous poetry.

It is often about a way of life that has now past in Ireland but that he is still a witness to – the farm where water comes from the well and the butter is churned by hand. He said he sometimes feels about four hundred years old. He can write stanzas which touch us deeply. His poems constantly remind us of the power of natural beauty and of the everyday events and tasks with which humans endeavour to work and live. The ability to write about the deep feelings created by family love, and the affection, humour and sadness at their passing has resulted in poems that are universal elegies. Heaney read us two poems that remember his four year old brother killed in a car accident. ‘Mid Term Break’ and ‘The blackbird of Glandore’.

He interspersed his reading of his new and old poems with explanatory notes to the audience full of humour, self deprecation, and learning. His conversation with the audience, although only he was speaking, created a great intimacy. He mentioned his love of the strange, and now, as he has grown older and suffered physical fragility, his love of writing about the immediate has increased.

One of his new poems (to be published in September) draws a parallel with himself being moved on a stretcher after a stroke and the miracle of the man lowered through the roof to be healed by Jesus. What is of great interest to him is the opposites in life, the letting go and the being burdened, ‘one without the other doesn’t seem as much’.
Heaney then read us his poem about his mother ironing ‘Old Smoothing Iron’ that expresses this.

He joked about his ability to now forget a name and how as a boy he had been amazed and puzzled when his Grandfather had forgotten. He touched on the troubled history of his homeland and the period of the ‘Troubles’ in Ulster in the1970s. He seemed to be saying that the pressure to comment through his poetry had gradually weighed like an obligation on him, he had responded to it because as a catholic he wanted room for his community to have a voice, but he was never political.

More recently he has turned, with relief, to concentrating on being a lyric poet. He has created poems which make space, and encompass all situations and emotions. This ability has been recognised by the world and as he read his poems in St. Andrews, we in the audience felt how truly he could express the human condition.