It was four years yesterday that Seamus Heaney passed… As is often the case with this sort of anniversaries, it feels like much less and much longer at the same time. Continue reading
It would have been Seamus Heaney’s birthday, today… So I thought I’d remember him with one of Ross Wilson’s sketched portraits and a poem – one of those miracles of thought, light, questions, wonder, and images so vivid you can taste them on your tongue. Continue reading
In ten days or so, Nina’s people are going to play Of Men and Poets again, in the tiny theatre where it was born. Not the place where it debuted – but the one where it was first put together… Well, yes, Of Men and Poets (codename 2P) has had its share of adventures, including a first night cancelled thanks to the last real snowfall hereabout, five or six years ago…
Anyway, we’ve been reminiscing, Nina and I, and the actor who plays a (wordless) Aeneas, and other Virgilian memories keep cropping up. Like the conference-speaker who arrived from Rome demanding someone to prepare his Powerpoint presentation for him, and someone else to read aloud four poems during his talk. Four long poems, in English, during a twenty-minute talk, before a mostly non-English speaking presentation. The conference people tried frantically to dissuade him: nobody would understand anyway, the poems together took about a quarter of an hour to be read, and could he explain quite what their relevance to his argument was?
In the end, and with the worst possible grace, the man reduced the poems to one – but on that one, Allen Tate’s Aeneas in Washington, he was adamant, and so someone suggested that I should read it – since I was there already, translating for Seamus Heaney… So yes, I ended up – with very little warning – reading Allen Tate before Seamus Heaney, as well as a full auditorium.
I think I must have made a deer-in-the-light expression, because Mr. Heaney patted my shoulder and whispered in my ear that I’d done more harrowing things. “Remember when I received the Premio Virgilio, the year before last, and I forgot to give you the text of my speech beforehand, and you translated as I spoke?”
Which I had, and it had been very much like the flying trapeze – with nary a net in sight: terrifying and glorious…
“It can’t be harder than that, can it? Go ahead.”
And because I hero-worshipped Mr. Heaney, and I would have jumped off cliffs at his bidding, go ahead I did. In the end, no one quite understood why Aeneas had to be read at all, since the talk barely mentioned Tate – but I managed to do it without entirely disgracing myself, and Mr. Heaney was very nice about it, and it is a beautiful poem anyway. So, although it was a bit like the flying trapeze again, it also turned out to be a lovely experience, and a memory I’ll cherish. Go figure, I’ll end up having to thank the unreasonable speaker, sooner or later.
Seamus Heaney used to say that his love of Virgil began with the wistfulness of his Latin teacher, who wished they could have read Book VI of the Aeneid, instead of the mandatory Book IX…
The notion of poetry to make a teacher sigh – this led the young Seamus to read Virgil, to find more and more ties to the ancient poet, to translate his works, to rework them into his own poems, to weave a golden web of inspiration, echoes and shared themes across the millennia. Continue reading
Seamus Heaney died yesterday.
He was my favourite contemporary poet, and it is a personal loss as well. I have met him, I was his interpreter, guide and driver during two of his trips to my hometown of Mantova. I translated a speech of his for a book about his ties to Virgil. He once attended the debut of a play of mine…
I hero-worshipped him. And I’m shattered.
It was a huge privilege to know him, to work with him. He was so profound and kind-hearted, he had such keen and laughing eyes. He seemed to always know what was in other people’s minds. He had this scintillating conversation, and now and then he lifted a curtain on this or that memory of his – and you caught the echo of a line, an image, and thought: oh dear, I’m in a poem!
I had never believed to “the poet’s aura” before. I thought it was one of those things, you know. Then I met him, and changed my mind. The aura was there all right – luminous and palpable. It is not a literary myth, it’s a matter of greatness. And I feel so privileged to have had the chance to experience the greatness of this extraordinary man.
His death was a terrible loss – a loss that only his legacy of poetry can soften a little.