Seamus Heaney Remembered

November 12, 2013

Heaney Tribute

Program for Heaney Tribute at Cooper Union.

A stellar lineup of poets, musicians, publishers, and poetry organizations gathered last night to pay tribute to Seamus Heaney.

Heaney, the 1995 Nobel laureate in literature, died after a fall on Friday, August 30, 2013, in Dublin. He had suffered a stroke in 2006.

The event, organized by the Poetry Society of America, the Academy of American Poets, Poets House, the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y, the Irish Arts Center PoetryFest, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Heaney’s US publisher, took place at the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City, an appropriate venue for such a stentorian public poetic figure.

Among the readers were Heaney’s fellow Irish poets Eamon Greenan, Eavan Boland,  Greg Delanty, and Paul Muldoon, along with Tracy K. Smith, Kevin Young, Jane Hirshfield, and Yusef Komunyakaa. You can read the full list here: Heaney Tribute.

One poem that was missing last night was one that I thought of shortly after hearing the news of Heaney’s death.

We were heading out to Martha’s Vineyard for a week with Samantha’s family to celebrate the 70th year of her mother, Lee Langbaum. The New York Times the morning we left had Heaney’s picture on the front page and ran his obituary, but I couldn’t get to it until much later in the day, aboard the ferry.

New York Times announcing Heaney's death.

New York Times announcing Heaney’s death.

It was sad news indeed, for those of us who loved his poetry and for the world that lost a remarkable voice.  Heaney was a wonderful poet and a warmhearted man, as most of the people gathered at Cooper Union last night — whether on stage or off — would attest.

I only met him twice, and only very briefly after readings, but he was gracious and generous both times. The last time I saw him was at a reading three years ago or so at Villanova University.

The poem that came to mind on Martha’s Vineyard, came to me as we were talking with the oyster shucker outside of Home Port Restaurant in Menemsha. Of course it was “Oysters,” a poem that was missing last night.

Here is Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters”:

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.

Alive and violated,
They lay on their bed of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean —
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.

We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.

Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south of Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege

And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

Here is Heaney reading his poem at the Griffin Poetry Prize Awards ceremony in 2012:


LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 25:  Author Jo Shapc...

Jo Shapcott. (Image by Getty Images via @daylife)

Another poet from across the Pond for this week.  British poet Jo Shapcott was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004.  She once described how the treatment left her feeling “reborn as someone slightly different.”  Last year, she published a collection that emerged from this experience, Of Mutability.

“The body has always been a subject for me,” she told The Guardian in an interview. “It is the stage for the high drama of our lives, from birth to death and everything in between.  When you observe your own body under physical change like that, there’s a new kind of urgency.  I had a lumpectomy, my lymph glands out, chemo and radiotherapy.  You go through several different stages, so you don’t know how ill you are for a while, and the verdict keeps getting worse and worse, until you can actually take action, start treatment.”

The concept of mutability has a long tradition in English poetry extending back as far as Chaucer.  Mutability points to the transience of things and of the inevitable changes of life.

Wordsworth spoke of “the unimaginable touch of Time” in his poem, “Mutability.” Shelley ended his poem of the same title,

It is the same!–For, be it joy or sorrow,

The path of its departure still is free:

Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;

Nought may endure but Mutability.

Shapcott is no stranger to life’s mutability.  Her parents both died unexpectedly when she was 18.  She found solace in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, who had also suffered early loss and dramatic change throughout her life.  Shapcott went to Oxford to pursue a PhD on Bishop’s poetry, but left for Harvard to study with poet Seamus Heaney when she received a scholarship.  It turned out to be a fortuitous mentorship.

Her books include Electroplating the Baby (1988), Phrase Book (1992), My Life Asleep (1998), and Her Book: Poems 1988-1998 (2000).

Shapcott writes with a “‘rangy, long-legged’ brio,” as one critic described her tone. Her language is equally intellectual and sensual, enigmatic and direct, which makes for poetry of breadth and range.  Consequently very few poems feel alike in the way you can tell the work of certain poets, a Gary Snyder poem or a Billy Collins poem, for example.  (The one exception in Shapcott’s work is her “Mad Cow” persona poems.)

Like Bishop, Shapcott is rarely overtly personal, even when writing about her illness from which she is now, thankfully, fully recovered and working on a new book.

Here is Jo Shapcott’s poem, “Of Mutability”:


Too many of the best cells in my body

are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw

in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four

and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small

among the numbers. Razor small.


Look down these days to see your feet

mistrust the pavement and your blood tests

turn the doctor’s expression grave.

Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets,

angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye,

join them if you like, learn astrophysics, or

learn folksong, human sacrifice, mortality,

flying, fishing, sex without touching much.

Don’t trouble, though, to head anywhere but the sky.

–Jo Shapcott

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