Unseen Forces: A Tribute to Seamus Heaney

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Saturday 14th September, Martin Harris Centre, Manchester University

A night that should have included a recital by a great Irish poet sadly became a posthumous celebration of the greatest Irish poet to have ever lived, Seamus Heaney.

Upon opening the evening’s recital, Irish poet, Vona Groarke, said: “we have been left in the lea of Heaney,” heavy sentiments which were also echoed by renowned poets, Don Paterson and Paul Muldoon.

Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007, was due to appear at the event alongside Heaney, but instead took to the lectern with the Scottish Forward Prize-winning poet, Don Paterson. The event was part of the 3rd British and Irish Contemporary Poetry Conference, held by The Centre for New Writing at The University of Manchester, in association with the Manchester Literature Festival, 2013.

In 2010, Heaney headlined the Manchester Literature Festival and spoke warmly of his links with the city as it was here that he had some of his earliest works published in a literary magazine set up by Harry Chambers. He also heaped praises on the university’s Centre for New Writing which he said has cultured some of the best Irish poets of recent years.

Paterson began the evening’s recitals acknowledging that, “we cannot disguise the sadness of the situation […] we’re on our own now.” Despite the melancholia surrounding the event, the night was a celebration and reassessment of Seamus Heaney’s work, the sadness and loss of which was reflected in both poets’ choice of poems. Each poet chose poems that tapped into Heaney’s psyche and borrowed from Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996. They traced Heaney’s upbringing on his parents’ farm at Mossbawn (‘Death of a Naturalist’, ‘Follower’, ‘The Harvest Bow’), Ireland and The Troubles (‘Two Lorries’, ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’) and ending fittingly with poems associated with peace, such as ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ and ‘The Wishing Tree’.

Both poets used humour and wit to get them through the sadness of the night’s recitals. Paterson interspersed his own poetry with that of Heaney, and recited poems from his own repertoire which included: ‘Dead Dog Poems’, ‘My Bad’ (a new poem that discussed solipsism and Googling oneself) and ‘Dundee,’ a place where he feels the need to, “get the fuck away from.” Muldoon on the other hand maintained a stoic buoyancy, pacing around the lectern as he recited poems including: ‘Cuba’, ‘Horseburger’, and ‘Cuba II’.

Each poet discussed Heaney’s unique way of making poetry seem easy, and one only has to read his seminal poem ‘Digging’ to understand what they mean by this. Paterson stated that rather than read his own poems, “I would have preferred to have just read Seamus Heaney tonight.” And what an oeuvre both poets have to chose from, as Paterson cited that Heaney has produced over 250 lyric poems of such a high calibre that he could have chosen any one.

As he recited ‘Sloe Gin’ with red wine in hand, Paterson raised a glass, both literally and metaphorically, to Heaney. ‘Sloe Gin’ is a poem that has all the slippery and slobbery adverbs and cutting adjectives so closely associated with Heaney’s body of work:

I drink to you

in smoke-mirled, blue-

black sloes, bitter

and dependable. (‘Sloe Gin’, Opened Ground 1966-1996, Faber and Faber)

Paterson admitted that after long breaks of writing poetry, it is Heaney that he turns to in order to help him remember, “the way poetry works.” And this was neatly demonstrated in his own recital of Heaney’s ‘Harvest Bow’ a symbolic poem about Heaney silently watching his father craft a memento, “A throwaway love-knot of straw” that is indelibly tied to his childhood memories of Mossbawn. As Paterson recited the lines of poetry, they took on a new resonance in relation to Heaney’s own legacy: “I tell and finger it like braille, / Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable”.

When Muldoon recited Heaney’s ‘Follower’ the sadness of the event was indeed palpable and highly poignant – it was as though Muldoon had become the poem’s “child-Heaney” which followed his poet-patriarch along ploughed furrows whilst stumbling, “in his hob-nailed wake.”

These feelings of loss and identity were also echoed in Muldoon’s own choice of poetry which conveyed a sense of being at a standstill and wanting to know which way to turn next, these included: ‘Why Brownlee Left’, and ‘I Stopped Somewhere Waiting for You’. One of the most poignant moments of the evening occurred in, ‘The Briefcase – for Seamus Heaney’ which included the line, “waiting in line” which shadowed Groarke’s thoughts about the direction contemporary Irish poetry may now take in the lea of Heaney.

Muldoon’s recital also celebrated the finer points of poetry and included an in-depth discussion on the etymology of “flummery”, (Paterson would advise you to Google it) which is something all wordsmiths and linguists, including Heaney himself, would have delighted in.

The evening drew to a close when Muldoon focused the evening’s event on Heaney’s own family stating that, “My own feelings towards Seamus Heaney are directed towards his wife and family.”

Being part of “the here and now” and celebrating Heaney’s work among such highly-respected Celtic poets is something I won’t ever forget. I’m also very grateful that I got to see and listen to the great poet in person three years ago at the Manchester Literature Festival. And so I shall leave you with the first stanza of my favourite sonnet written by him:

“Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter

Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head

Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now

He galloped his thunder cart and his horses…”

For more events at the Manchester Literature Festival 2013, please visit http://www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk/

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