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The Poetry Foundation's Quiet Evening With Seamus Heaney

By Maggie Hellwig in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 23, 2012 3:40PM

Last Thursday, we attended the Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute for a special event. In honor the 58th Annual Poetry Day, The Poetry Foundation hosted a reading from one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century: Seamus Heaney.

Heaney has become so well-known as a poet and translator, so utterly revered as an artist and an educator, that it is a sobering experience to see him alone on an outstretched stage, taking up less than a third of the space and illuminated by a single spotlight. Once he spoke, however, his presence—his gracious demeanor, lighthearted comments, and his distinct Northern Irish accent—filled in any physical space that his body failed to occupy.

Heaney began by reading from his translation of Beowulf, which has gained notoriety for Heaney's liberal use of modern English. The reading became far more intense, and far more personal, when he transitioned to reading his own work. Heaney's reflections on his poems were engrossing. "The Tollund Man," for instance, is a poem reflecting on the mummified body of a Danish man and the images of death which so closely surrounded Heaney. "Casualty," stems from a riot in which 13 people were killed, and a curfew was called for on the day of their funeral. The only man he knew to disobey the curfew was a heavy drinker and a regular at his father's pub. The combination of historical and personal circumstance is what makes his poems so exacting and often so bleak.

There were comedic moments, of course. Heaney referred to the animal in the poem "The Skunk," written from an experience of house-sitting in California, as a creature likening to Mae West. Before reading his famous piece, "Digging," he told a brief anecdote. His daughter made the observation that to write such an ambitious poem at such a young age was quite confident. He responded to her, "Oh no, it's the poem that is confident." He shared with us some other private insights. "The Skylight," was written during his visiting Professorship at Harvard University; he would return home and find that furniture in his house had been "re-arranged without his consult."

The question and answer portion of the event was a bit of a disappointment, not because of Heaney's answers, but because of the queries from the audience. Those raising their hands had little to inquire, but mostly just wanted to flatter the poet. One individual asked for his autograph, which was slightly off-kilter at an event in which no photography nor interviews were allowed.

The last question, however—coming from a young child—was probably the best moment of the concluding discussion. She referred back to the story of his daughter from earlier, and added, "If your poems have confidence, then do you think that they have a life of their own?" In the words of Heaney, and put quite succinctly, his poems often "stand up straight and walk to the back of the audience."