Last night I walked into the Free Library of Philadelphia and discovered myself, for a large part of the evening, in rural Northern Ireland during the middle part of last century. My tour guide for the night was a white-haired jocular native with an endearingly robust Irish accent, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney.
I was thrilled when he opened his reading with “Digging,” a poem I first came across in Mrs. Richards’ English classroom, Aelfgar Comprehensive School, Rugeley, England, circa 1982. I could credit that poem with part of the responsibility for my own early forays into poetry, although that might be to do Mrs. Richards a disservice. She brought that poem alive for us, as she did so many others. (If I digress to elegize my former teacher for a minute, Seamus will understand. He talked yesterday about the ‘Seamus Heaney circle’—those named characters in his poems that by their presence imbue his verse with a sense of time and place. Mrs. Richards would be part of the ‘Anna Evans’ circle’, and I do believe I may owe her a poem.)
The circle to which Seamus refers is immortalized in the title of his new collection District & Circle, and perhaps half of the poems he read came from this new book. (Yes, I bought a signed copy; no, alas, I didn’t get to meet him.) As good poetry should, this title casts several shadows: the District & Circle lines are two lines on London’s Underground that follow the same tracks for a large part of their distance, hence the pairing, and the title poem is a sequence of five poems set in the London Underground. But as Seamus explained, ‘the District’ was also how his neighbors referred to their small part of Ireland: “he’s from ‘the District’” meant he was a local.
Many of the new poems do hark back to the regional poetry Heaney is perhaps best known for: for example poems like “Midnight Anvil” tell the story of local blacksmith Barney Devlin ringing in the new millennium on his anvil. However, District & Circle is also Heaney’s post nine-eleven collection, and there are other poems within it that hint at a darkness reminiscent of his early poems which documented the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. “Helmet” is a poem twenty years in the making about the gift of a fireman’s helmet, and the images that self-sacrificing service have lately evoked; “Shiver,” ostensibly about swinging a sledge-hammer, is an allegory against the wielding of unstoppable force.
After reading for forty-five minutes, Seamus took audience questions, and here demonstrated his wisdom and tact to its utmost. On being asked by a fellow Irishwoman what on earth made him think he could become a poet, he admitted he had never thought of himself that way, not until after three published collections, someone else wrote it, without asking, in the column on a form reserved for his occupation. When asked for his take on the ‘evil empire’ of the MFA program proliferation, he defended the need for writing programs, while at the same time laying the blame for ‘the kind of poetry we only pretend to like’ squarely at the door of the literary establishment.
Finally, on being offered the chance to read three or four more poems to close, Seamus said he would read just one, and after telling an amusing pub story about knowing when it is time to go, read “Quitting Time.”
In this latest collection, and on tour, Ireland’s best-loved poet demonstrates that he is at the height of his literary powers. I hope it will be a long time yet before Seamus calls it “Quitting Time.”