Sunday, September 1, 2013

Remembering Seamus Heaney

My friend, the local Jewish but universal playwright, Jenna Zark, said to me a number of years ago, in astonishment and with a bit of self-rebuke: "You're the only one I know who reads poetry."

I can't say how I found myself in this predicament, I just did. I hadn't taken a single poetry course in undergraduate nor none since then nor since graduating law school. It wasn't as if I hadn't wanted to but the formal structures of poetry, something grand, and the rise of free verse, with its hideous, Joni Mitchell-like confessional nature to it but without her talent, was an argument I could follow but not actually engage in. No matter how unlettered I might be in it as an intellectual construct, I knew that language found its highest expression, in every culture, in every tongue, throughout human time, in poetry. There is simply no argument.

Not so long ago, the "average" American could quote Longfellow. Now, we have poetry slams, which are a linguistic and cultural cancer. The correlation between those two things and the decline of public education is more than approximate.

Enormous coverage has rightfully been generated in the wake of Heaney's passing. I have only one bon mot to add, a small one indeed but, as it happens, actually happened to me with him. And long before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, an award far too often lavished on the untalented but politically correct.

As a "bright young thing" in the late 1970's at St. John's University, Collegeville, MN, I was tasked, along with other bright young things, to travel to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport and fetch Mr. Irish Poet and bring him behind the pine curtain. This much, our mentors thought, we could do without adult supervision. They failed to take into account we were fetching Seamus Heaney, their intellectual construct, as opposed to a real, live, breathing, drinking human being. Also, an Irishman.

We found him, apparently, with no particular problem. What I remember to this day is the drive north toward St. John's. He had asked the driver of the car to stop at a package liquor store which he dutifully did. There seemed to be nothing more than several Guinnesses for each undergraduate and perhaps a pint or half a pint of Irish whiskey for the master.  The magic liquid, that devil, was enough for all of us to urinate somewhere beyond passing traffic into the fields of Minnesota. We continued on, literally laughing all the way. Heaney was a presence and, although too young to really know, we could at least tell we were in the presence of an exceptional man. The word poetry had not been uttered all this time.

Realizing we were to a man half-in-the-bag as we approached the concrete spire of St. John's, we tried to assemble ourselves. Heaney was both repelled and attracted to the architecture of the Abbey. A fellow Roman Catholic, Heaney was still, at this time, making allowances for the variety of its expression in the new world, the one in which his people and mine had fairly conquered, coming far from when the British would kill or imprison those who taught the native language, not Gaelic, thank you, but Irish.  So, so many years before Sinead.

We parked and trudged toward the President's Lounge or some such nonsensical but important place on campus, the place we had been instructed to deliver him to. This was all going according to plan but had gone wildly off course. We were the only ones who knew it, though, but with Seamus amongst us proclaiming all was well, who were we young ones to argue?

We arrived at "the end of all our exploring" and began to trundle into the lounge in which sat all the most important people of the University. The half-in-the-bag fellow bright young things went in first, pretty much giving the game away.

All but Seamus Heaney had gone before, I was directly behind him, the last to enter after our noble guest, having been Irishly fetched from the Twin Cities.

With a knowing smile at my youth, The Poet turned to me before taking the stage, and said to me, his fellow Irishman:

"I think the experts have diagnosed our condition."

Requiescat in pace.