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Poetry Moment: Welcome to the party, Seamus Heaney

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Back in April, HoCoPoLitSo conceived of its Poetry Moment series as a dose of soothing literature during the pandemic shut-in. When George Floyd was murdered in May, renewing the Black Lives Matter movement, we changed our focus. In support of the racial justice, HoCoPoLitSo wanted to amplify the voices of the Black poets who have read for our audiences here in Howard County. Now it’s September and we’re inviting other voices to join our verse party to continue these conversations about what divides and unites us.

Poetry Moment will now include poets of other backgrounds, including Irish, Chinese, Muscogee (Creek), Latinx, and Baltimorean, including Lucille Clifton and Josephine Jacobsen.

We’re starting with Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winner and force of nature who read for our audiences three times. Called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, Heaney died in 2013. But the hour-long interview from 1988, excerpted here, remained in our archives until we could negotiate and pay for rights to air it. We finally secured those rights last year, and we’re grateful to Padraic Kennedy for his donation that covered those costs.
This week’s Poetry Moment also includes a face many in Howard County knew and loved, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, who co-founded HoCoPoLitSo in 1974, and died this past February. Padraic and Ellen, married for nearly 65 years, are the foundation that HoCoPoLitSo is built upon.

At the beginning of this week’s video, Ellen can be heard, and then seen, requesting Heaney’s poem “Digging.” “Recited,” she adds. Heaney smiles. He knew Ellen well, and like most in the poetry world, could not refuse her.
He then recites his iconic poem. When I was teaching students this poem, they didn’t understand how the rhymes fit together until they heard it in his voice. Then they understood the connection between “ground” and “down” and “sods” and “bog.” They didn’t know that when Heaney pronounced “gravelly ground,” it sounded just like the scrape of a shovel into soil.
Any time we can offer poems in the voice of the author, we’re doing the world a service. And this voice seems timely to hear now because of the increasing fracturing of our country over racial justice, and political divisions in general.

Heaney’s voice was well known in Ireland during the troubles, the sectarian divisions and violence that pitted citizens of different religions against each other from the 1960s to 1998.

“Ireland has been characterized by a tradition of sectarian violence,” Duke University’s President Richard Brodhead said during a Trinity College of Arts and Sciences tribute to Heaney after his death. “Not armies against armies, but between people who live together by day and (had) the violence suddenly intrude on their domestic lives. His poems are an uncanny evocation of this intimate violence.”

While he was never overtly political, Heaney talks in this hour-long episode of The Writing Life about an intimately violent poem he wrote in the seventh section of Station Island, the shooting of a young man he knew in Ulster after police arrived at his door.

“Because, see, in Ulster, as in shall we say, you could have imagined a situation some years or decades ago in the Southern states of the United States, where someone could be a virulent bigoted Klan member, but also be wearing the uniform of impersonal justice, in other words a policeman, so that they hygiene of the uniform is no guarantee. You actually have the festering stuff underneath it,” Heaney tells the audience in 1988. He explains that he isn’t pinning blame in his poem, he doesn’t accuse the police, he’s talking in universal terms about the killing of a man he knew. And he finishes with explaining, “Politics in Northern Ireland, and politics in El Salvador and politics in Iran and politics in Israel, it’s all spectator sport for most people. Of course it’s necessary for those of us outside to be concerned, but the real energy is intimate. I think that writing has to concern itself with the first circle, with the intimate place where everything is exact, rather than with the second or third circle, where the big parties are watching and you’re getting publicity. Poetry isn’t concerned with publicity.”

Poetry not publicity. Sounds like a great motto. Now more than ever, poetry’s witness and wisdom provide a window of understanding into other’s lives. Listen to this voice, so specifically Irish, and hear the universal, as when Gwendolyn Brooks spoke of her seven at the Golden Shovel in “We Real Cool,” or Tyehimba Jess read about Blind Tom the musical savant, or Patricia Smith channeling the voice of a hurricane. HoCoPoLitSo’s mission is to amplify literature’s voices, to allow words to change the world.


Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer


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