Mole Valley Poets, 2ndJune 2014, Sharon Williams: Seamus Heaney his friends and students

Seamus Justin Heaney (13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013), an Irish poet, filled his time with writing and teaching. He was a professor at Harvard from 1981 to 1997 and Poet in Residence from 1988 to 2006. He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994. He received many awards including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past" and the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry in 2012.

Sharon played a recording of Seamus Heaney reading his poem Digging which links the present of the writer to the past of his childhood and his father and grandfather in a spare earthiness of language..

Seamus Heaney attended Queen's University, Belfast where he became a lecturer in English. He joined The Belfast Group, a poets'  workshop organised by Philip Hobsbaum, which started in 1963 and continued until 1972. This group met to read works from a particular poet and to look at poems written by those in the group in order to give constructive feedback. Other participants included James Simmons, Paul Muldoon, Ciarán Carson, Stewart Parker, Bernard MacLaverty and Frank Ormsby.

We then looked at Fireflies by Frank Ormsby in which the conversational flow and rhythm present fireflies as fugitive selves,/ winged and at random and flickery might-have-beens and these bring cheer within the darkness.

Ciarán Carson, contemporary with Frank Ormsby, was a student of Seamus Heaney, and Sharon contacted him in connection with his poem Belfast Confetti as part of her talk last year. He wrote that poetry is written by happenstance for its own sake as part of his reply and wished Mole Valley Poets well. His poem The Fetch is a haunting evocation of loss.

Ciarán Carson wrote in an obituary Seamus Heaney's death will leave a void in all our lives, But his words have become part of our lives, and he endures in them. There is no poet in Ireland who has not been influenced by his example, and is in his debt; but so is everyone who has been touched by his poetry, and they are innumerable.

Sharon referred to Stepping Stones by Dennis O'Driscoll which is a series of interviews with Seamus Heaney and a bibliography compiled by Rand Brandes.

Seamus Heaney wrote a poem in response to the work of the sculptor Carolyn Mulholland Poet's Chair in which the feet are described as cat's-foot, goat-foot, big soft splay-foot too and every flibbertigibbet in town has a go at sitting on the chair, the winged air behind them from two bronze and leafy saplings making them happy. The humorous ending is very down to earth. Carolyn Mulholland later made a bust of Seamus Heaney.

Seamus Heaney was good friends with Ted Hughes and together they worked on the anthology The Rattle Bag. Seamus Heaney saiys in an article in The Guardian We were wanting to serve notice that the anthology was a wake-up call, an attempt to bring poetry and younger people to their senses. And we wanted to do so for precisely those ends I outlined at the beginning. For the present delight of younger people. For the future nurture of mature people. For the now of perception. For the then of recollection. We intended the same material to prove equally rewarding for the one growing up, the one "standing still" - and, if all went well, for the one "growing down".

Sharon then played a recording of Seamus Heaney reading St Kevin and the Blackbird and in contrast one of Ted Hughes reading The Thought Fox. Both poems have detailed descriptions of the natural world and are written in a straightforward style while each has a distinct and particular voice.

Andrew Motion said in the Belfast telegraph Seamus was a great poet – of Ireland and the world, a brilliantly shrewd and generous writer about poetry, and a person of exceptional grace and intelligence and integrity, A wonderful man, in fact: as modest and kindly as he was gifted and principled.

Christopher Benfey, a student of Seamus Heaney stated in The New York review of books Sept 2013: Seamus Heaney used to say that the poetry-writing hours of a poet's day were the easy part; it was what to do with the rest of the day that was a challenge. He decided early on that teaching was something honorable to do with the rest of the day. And went on to say: He was a calm, unassuming presence in class, not the "great poet" at all, cautiously offering suggestions in the mode of "what if?" Mostly what he suggested was what he called surgery. "This poem could use a little surgery," he would say. "What if you cut the first stanza?" Or, "Isn't that last line a bit grandiloquent for the occasion? Perhaps you could do without it."

Seamus Heaney wrote a poem in response to a request from Carol Ann Duffy to contribute to a memorial anthology marking the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. She asked poets to choose a poem, letter or memoir of the time and respond to that. Seamus chose Edward Thomas's As the Team's Head Brass and then wrote In a Field. This was completed in June, two months before his own death. This poem with furrows in a field and a tractor with hoisted plough just gone out onto the road has the long healed footprints of one who arrived / from nowhere who stumbles forward to take him by the hand and lead him back through the same old gate into the yard / where everyone has suddenly appeared, / all standing waiting.

Sharon concluded with a quote from Seamus Heaney: If you have the words, there's always a chance that you'll find the way.

This was a most interesting and enjoyable presentation. There were plenty of opportunities for questions and discussion. Sharon pointed out that Mole Valley Poets meet to discuss poets and to give feedback on each other's work just as The Belfast Group did!

Notes by Helen Overell