Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Hastings Room Series’ Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading with feature reader Meg Tyler and Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Death of a Naturalist

Meg Tyler

The Hastings Room Series’ Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading with feature reader Meg Tyler and Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Death of a Naturalist

Wednesday September 14th at First Church Congregationalist
11 Garden Street near Harvard Square, at 7pm

by Michael Steffen

The book Death of a Naturalist, with its well-known title poem, was published in 1966, fifty years ago this year. Seamus Heaney’s first major published collection, it won the Cholmondeley Award, the Gregory Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award—an auspicious welcome in publishing for the Irish poet who would go on to receive the Nobel Prize twenty-nine years and many collections later in 1995.

Death of a Naturalist consists of 34 poems based on childhood experiences and the coming to age of adult recognitions, family relations and life on the farm and in rural Ireland.

Helen Vendler has written about the identity groups Heaney confronted in forming his early poetic character, his family name “Heaney,” his national conversation with Ireland and the Irish, as a Catholic, as an English speaker, a European, a member of rural rather than urban background. Vendler writes, “If Heaney is to write about any of these several groups, he vows not to be intimidated by what those groups think of him and of his work… This vow is one all poets must take, and one which is always very difficult to keep; but it becomes particularly hard when the claims of affection and solidarity attempt to establish confines around what can be said or written.”

Vendler also speaks of the anonymity the child’s persona takes on in the poems of Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark, of the “outsideness” of the perception. In one of his books of essays on poetry, Preoccupations, Heaney writes with admiration for the childhood poems of Theodore Roethke. Like Roethke’s greenhouse poems, Heaney’s early pieces, especially the poem “Death of a Naturalist,” make a broad, nearly immediate appeal to readers. In these lines which begin—“All year the flax-dam festered in the heart Of the townland; green and heavy headed Flax had rotted there…” —the poet is acknowledging and confronting perhaps his most encompassing identity mirror, nature/sexuality, in the image of the frogspawn which fascinates the young Heaney, then of the frogs themselves, who with their coarse croaking voices take on a transcendent, demonic aspect which frightens and turns the child away.

On Wednesday evening, the poem “Death of a Naturalist” will be read, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Heaney’s marvelous international debut, in the introduction to our readers,
George Kalogeris, David Blair and Meg Tyler. We’re putting Meg on the spot this year as the “feature” guest. All three readers are equally wonderful.

Tyler is the 2016 Fulbright Professor of Anglophone Irish Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University in Belfast. She's the author of a monograph on Seamus Heaney, A Singing Contest (Routledge 2005), and is now working on a book of essays about the Irish poet Michael Longley. Her first book of poems, Poor Earth, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2014.

It’s a pleasure and so interesting how Tyler talks and writes about poetry. She takes less-traveled paths to look at Heaney’s poetry. Edna Longley and Ciaran Carson have caged the power of Heaney’s pieces on history as “dangerously mythologizing” and mystifying. But Tyler’s opening, almost thesis-like view of the poet’s “impulse” as one “towards unity and regeneration” both is unexpected and makes great sense in the overall estimation of Heaney’s poetic character, which time and again attests to wariness for the superficial arguments and identifications that give rise to enmity and conflict.

Meg speaks of Heaney’s “working model of inclusive consciousness” for poetry, including
“an engagement with the past.” This opens an inexhaustible door to the influences and conversations with other poets that have sparked Heaney’s interest and imagination. Tyler reiterates that Heaney did not make giants of his predecessors, but equals of them. And like
a faring poet, Heaney conversed with so many poets, from the speaking yesterday of Virgil, Dante or Kavanaugh, Lowell and Larkin to his contemporaries at home, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and abroad, Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz.

While Tyler’s scope is broad and far-reaching, she can be wonderfully forensic in her prosodic analyses. In one, of many instances throughout A Singing Contest, Meg compares Heaney’s translation of passages from Virgil’s Eclogues with those of David Ferry. “Ferry’s puzzles are subtle,” Tyler writes—

as he relies less on dialect, which heightens the line’s rhythmic movement in Heaney. Ferry adheres to a pentameter line. However, the line that reads, “Heartbroken and beaten, since fortune will have it so,” displays metrical ingenuity with a spondee in the first foot followed by other anapestic substitutions. The variations…express the strain and stress of circumstance, a weight too great to carry… (A Singing Contest, Routledge, 2005, p. 63)

Drawing our attention to the line and its meter, she appreciates the subtly signifying and illustrative dance of the language’s rhythm composed in its metrical difference. It is as fine an observation as that rare diner’s who tastes a sauce and then proceeds to analyze the wine, vegetables, herbs and saltiness of the butter used to prepare it.

So, looking forward to Wednesday evening: Because “Death of a Naturalist” will be among the poems read for the audience, I’ve chosen a poem of a very different inspiration to leave our readers with this week, in a far different situation and meditation from the child’s instinctual attractions and dreads.

St Kevin and the Blackbird
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love's deep river,
'To labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name.

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