Anne Marie Kennedy, MA in Writing, NUI Galway is an award winner writer, performance poet, playwright, freelance journalist and creative writing teacher.
Listen Now Again/Éist Anois Arís
(Seamus Heaney April 13th 1939 – August 30th 2013)
When news of Séamus Heaney’s sudden death was broadcast on August 30th, 2013, the nation’s heart lurched. Even those who seldom read poetry were aware of his significance, how he had left a precious legacy, that the nation was bereaved but proudly indebted.
Five years on, the great poet is celebrated in Listen Now Again, a captivating, multi-dimensional exhibition, snapshots of his life, professional and personal. Artefacts are arrayed at the Bank of Ireland gallery in College green, the contents gleaned from his notebooks, photographs and other memorabilia he personally donated to the National Library in 2011.
At Séamus Heaney’s 70th birthday, Paul Muldoon said ‘if the expression “generous to a fault” could be corporeally manifest, it would be in him.’ This exhibition reflects that generosity, congruent with his reputation for courtesy, graciousness and humility.
The familiar poems, When All The Others Were Away At Mass, Digging and The Rainstick are revised, rethought and rewritten under display cabinet glass. His fluid fountain pen disarranges neatly typed verses, lines are scribbled out and like a cartographer he writes words inside circles, boxes, breaking lines, connecting them again with arrows and inserts. I follow his alterations, seeing new poem shapes emerge with a changed word, follow his treasure hunt for replacement phrases along the margins and headlands of copybook pages.
Born in Mossbawn, the poet’s family moved to Bellaghy when he was fifteen, the place and time where his poetic imagination unfurled, verdant, fernlike and flourished. The poems from that time, the bucolic settings, his formative years and portrayals of childhood epiphanies are rendered luminously here.
His family’s generosity is also abundant in portrayals of their private lives: the wedding photo full of beauty, vigour and youth, their little boys with wind-tousled hair on a break from a Sunday drive perhaps, exploring a field of overgrown hay and rushes, the poet in tweed jacket smoking over a hedgerow. The young Heaney with his siblings in black and white ordinariness, the poet relaxing by walls of books, the squat pen between finger and thumb, the Nobel Prize ceremony and other academic achievements.
The exhibition also speaks to his sense of place, the security of a loving home, traditions and customs, feast days, the calendar and the Irish agrarian cycle. And like Sligo, a rich vein of cultural association for W.B. Yeats, Heaney’s Derry landscape is there, comingled with Ireland’s history, mythology, the music and the physical rhythms of rivers and seas. His interpretation of Irish euphemisms and her consciousness, the bog bodies, archaeology and the Irish language.
Work that celebrates the craftsmen of his youth, the imagery visceral and earthy, praise poems for the working classes: the blacksmith, the thatcher, farmers, fishermen and his own lineage, celebrated in one of his early poems Digging, from Death of a Naturalist, a poem that gets pride of place near the entrance. Behind it, nestled in bespoke cubbyholes are perfectly cylindrical sods of dry brown turf, stacked neatly, urbanely, symbolically, nothing like the sleáin cut turf of Toner’s bog, nor the work of father and grandfather revered in the poem.
‘By God, the old man could handle a spade/Just like his old man/ My grandfather cut more turf in a day/Than any other man on Toner’s bog/Once I carried him milk in a bottle/corked sloppily with paper/he straightened up to drink it, then fell to right away/nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods/over his shoulder, going down and down/For the good turf/Digging.’
A recording of his passionate voice is on a continuous loop, the rich acoustics of the cavernous building providing perfect amplification, his Ulster dialect and rich cadence, a pure comfort, like a lilted tune, sung in complete harmony with the music of great poetry.
I left reluctantly, timing it around his reciting of the west Clare poem, Postscript.
Walking up the Liffey’s banks to catch the Galway train, I heard myself repeat the last few lines, my anniversary prayer in awe and gratitude.
‘You are neither here nor there
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.’