by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

Pound Notes and Cigarette Butts: Seamus Heaney, cont.

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“Auden says Yeats ‘became his admirers,’ which I always take in the complicated way that, if a writer becomes one of his own admirers, he’s dead to innovation.  But of course it means that a writer’s remains are, to some extent, displaced and vibrant in his readers.  What is that movie in which a murder victim’s eyeballs are transplanted, and the recipient starts seeing the murderer?”

That piece of quicksilver practical criticism comes from David Gewanter, who teaches poetry at Georgetown.  A few days ago I posted a piece asking for further insight about Seamus Heaney’s religious beliefs, and I quoted David’s recollection of his time as a student of Heaney’s at Harvard.

Well, David shot right back with “a couple of Heaney-the-kinda-catholic anecdotes for you.”  There’s this one, about what might be called practical charity:

When he got the Nobel there was a Harvard party for him, and my wife starts poking him in the chest, he had a dollar bill folded in his shirt pocket.  “What’s this for?” she asked.  He said, “We’ve got a man comes our house in Dublin every couple of weeks asking for money, and I give him some, I have a pound note or so in my pocket.  But now word’s gotten around, and I’ll have to tell him, ‘I can’t start giving you more.’”  So, insofar as Catholic commitments to charity are concerned—and to a non-Christian like me, these carry an admirable charm when they’re done impulsive and ‘laterally,’ not linked to churchstone or doctrine – he showed it all over.

And this one:

At a party, another Irishman, maybe Seamus Deane of the Field Work group, told him of a friend who had just been killed in the Troubles.  Seamus put his head down and murmured something to himself, which I assumed was a prayer.

And there’s the work, which is a comprehensive answer: 

Of course, his book Station Island, his long engagement with Dante—you read Pinsky’s piece in Slate—shows another kind of engagement.

I haven’t read Robert Pinsky’s Slate piece: going to read it now. I’ll leave you with David, and this:

If you stayed late at some blow-out Irish party in Boston, after most people had left, and the liquor was gone, David Hammond or some other Field Work writer would gather the survivors for a last round, and they’d redistribute any unfinished beer bottle (except the ones with cigarette butts in them).

Now that’s practical charity.    

  • 18 October 2013