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'A Wee Bit of the Irish': My Time With Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney reads to an audience at Bridgewater State College on May 4, 1982. (Photos courtesy of the archives of Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Massachusetts.)

By Don Johnson

When I learned that Seamus Heaney was going to read at Bridgewater State College at the end of the spring semester in 1982, I began to incorporate additional Heaney poems into an already packed syllabus in my Introduction to Poetry course, hoping to generate in my students the same enthusiasm I felt for his work. Heaney was far and away my favorite poet, and I also admired his natural humor and far-ranging intelligence. He could link images from an obscure Polish poet with wry observations about Diggory Venn, the reddleman in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, without apparent effort or intellectual affectation. He was by 1982 already famous in the Boston area where I had taught at Bridgewater for 12 years before moving to East Tennessee State University in 1983.

Clement C. Maxwell Library literary festival flyer, 1982, with Seamus Heaney's appearance listed under Tuesday, May 4.

I had already read and taught many of Heaney’s poems and had attended several readings he had given in the area, always in the company of Charlie Fanning, a colleague in the English Department, and Bill Levin, a sociologist with a keen interest in poetry. Heaney had by 1982 published five widely acclaimed volumes of poems. In 1981, he was given an appointment as a visiting professor at Harvard, where he taught intermittently for the next 25 years. He served as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory from 1984-1995 and as Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence from 1998-2006.

The poet had accepted an invitation to read at the college from Owen McGowan, Bridgewater State’s head librarian. McGowan had asked Charlie, a specialist in Irish Literature, to collect Heaney at Harvard and drive him to Fall River, where he lived, for an early dinner. Aware of my admiration for Heaney, Charlie invited me to accompany him. Little did I expect that our trip to Cambridge would begin one of the most memorable evenings of my life.

When we arrived at Heaney’s rooms at Adams House I sat in the car while Charlie disappeared through the front door, returning five minutes later with the smiling poet dressed in a dark suit. He carried a substantial briefcase which I assumed held the books from which he would read that evening. But once introductions were made and we headed to the Southeast Expressway, Heaney surprised us by asking as he reached into his satchel, “Would it be illegal for a man to have a drink while driving down the road in this country?”

We both laughed and Charlie confessed that it was “technically illegal” but that the law was regularly violated. Whereupon Heaney withdrew from the briefcase three bottles of beer. It had nothing to do with the beer, but I remember little of the conversation that took place on our 50-mile drive to Fall River. I suspect Seamus and Charlie exchanged news about mutual friends, books they had recently read, and issues connected with Irish Literature. Charlie was already an established scholar studying the Irish immigrant experience in America, and an authority on Finley Peter Dunne, a Chicago journalist who commented on the city’s cultural and political landscape through the eyes of Mr. Dooley, a fictional Irish bartender from the Bridgeport community. I don’t know if Charlie and Seamus had spent much time together before this occasion, but I could sense a deep personal bond between them.

Heaney, in the company of author Patricia McGowan, examine a display of the works of Irish novelist Patrick MacGill, Mrs. McGowan's father.

The auditorium was the perfect size for a poetry reading, not one of the massive venues at which Heaney read in Boston. Most of the seats were filled but the room was small enough for a sense of intimacy to prevail. In an introduction that Heaney later described as “moving,” Charlie welcomed the poet and prepared the audience for an extraordinary evening of poetry interlaced with personal anecdotes and comments on Irish history and literature. Seamus began with “Digging,” a poem comparing the poet’s work to that of his father’s literal digging in the flower garden below his window, an image which wakens a memory of the father digging in the potato drills 20 years earlier. Then the poet reaches beyond the father to the grandfather, a turf cutter, who bequeathed to the poet a family history of physical labor. Acknowledging his debt to his hard-working forebears, Heaney proclaims his own dedication to the work of his hands in which, not a spade, but his “squat pen rests,” the honest tool with which he’ll do his own digging. The rest of the reading was packed not only with the poet’s own poems but also with Yeats’ small poems and some of Heaney’s translations. *

The crowd was delighted at Heaney’s performance, and his mingling with post-reading well-wishers at a modest reception plus the requisite book signings gave me enough time to return to my nearby house and kiss my wife and two boys goodnight before being picked up by Fanning for the return trip to Cambridge. Seamus sat in the front seat with Charlie. I sat in the back with two additional passengers, Charlie’s wife, Fran, and Bill Levin. During my short visit to my house someone had crowded in a case of beer.

Fresh from the reading, our group was a convivial one, with Seamus regaling us with his impressions of the evening: the dinner at Owen McGowan’s house, the reading itself and comments on current literary criticism. But even with the evident camaraderie, we were amazed when Charlie pulled into a parking spot adjacent to Adams House and Heaney invited us up to his rooms. Delighted, we followed him up the stairs to the second floor flat. As a consummate host, he disappeared into the small kitchen area and returned with a bottle of Bushmills and five glasses. Fran, however, who was pregnant with the Fannings’ first child, limited herself to water.

Heaney, left, Owen McGowan, director of the Maxwell Library at then Bridgewater State College, and Patricia McGowan.

As the night wore on, our host became more and more expansive. I’m sure his talk with Charlie about Irish literature accounted for most of our craik, the Irish slang term for exchanging news, gossip and even more serious ideas in conversation. But when he disappeared for a moment and returned with not only a second bottle of Bushmills but also a harmonica, it was evident that the great man was genuinely having a good time. In my telling and re-telling of my “night with Seamus” story I have always included the detail of the harmonica. It’s such a fine addition to the account that over the years I came to doubt a bit that it actually happened. Bill Levin cannot remember it at all, but in a recent conversation Charlie assured me that it had, and that the song Heaney played was not an Irish standard, but the old American ballad “Shenandoah.” In addition to the tune on the harmonica, Heaney, who liked to share his music, also played recordings of Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” and, appropriately, some bagpipe music.

The high point of our visit for me, however, was not the music. It occurred when I picked up a plain, hard-backed ledger sort of volume from the coffee table and started thumbing through it. It was filled with handwritten excerpts drawn from the works of famous writers who had visited with the poet. The two that I remember distinctly were Robert Lowell and Gunter Grass, but the volume was a compressed version of modern world literature, all in the authors’ own hands. Imagine my surprise, then, when Heaney, who saw me with the book, said, “Why don’t you put something of yours in it, Don”? I was astonished at the request and a little caught up short. While I could’ve quoted long passages from Wordsworth or Keats, even Alexander Pope, I couldn’t remember more than two lines of any of my own poems! I begged off, saying that the book contained such eminent writers that something of mine would undermine the entire collection. But Seamus insisted.

I was saved from embarrassment by the fact that on the same coffee table from which I picked up the ledger book lay another volume entitled The Poets Choice: One Hundred American Poets’ Favorite Poems, edited by George E. Murphy Jr. To this day I don’t know how the book came to be there, but it contained one of my poems, “The Children’s Hour,” a piece about watching my two young sons playing in the backyard at dusk. I picked up the book and as carefully as possible transcribed the entire poem and then shakily added my own signature to Heaney’s remarkable collection from around the world.

Our visit with what many would consider the English-speaking world’s most accomplished poet lasted till 2:30 a.m., and our host’s thrusting another bottle of Bushmills into Charlie’s hands, “for the road,” meant that Heaney had enjoyed the evening as much as we had. We sang ’50s songs all the way home, conveyed safely, indebted to Fran in her role as our designated driver.

I moved the next year to Johnson City, Tennessee, and assumed the post of chair of the Department of English at ETSU. Shortly thereafter Charlie and Fran moved to Carbondale, Illinois, where Charlie became head of the Irish and Irish Immigration Studies Program at Southern Illinois University.

It would be 15 years before I encountered Heaney again, and once more Charlie would be the catalyst. SIU was hosting the Nobel Prize for Literature-winning poet for a reading on Oct. 5, 1998, and the next day he was to receive an award from the St. Louis Public Library. Charlie had invited me down to the reading but asked me to come a day early so I could accompany him and SIU poet-in-residence Rodney Jones on the two-hour drive to the St. Louis airport to pick up the poet and bring him to Carbondale. Without a second thought I accepted the invitation. Not only would it be an opportunity to spend more time with Heaney, but it would also allow me to catch up with Rodney, a powerful poet, whom I had known a little when he taught at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, Virginia.

When we met Heaney by the passengers’ gate at Lambert International, he greeted us warmly. I’m not sure if Rodney had met him before, but I was astonished that he greeted me by my given name. I suspect that Charlie had informed him that Rodney and I would accompany him to St. Louis, but I was never certain. It had been 15 years, and so much had happened in his life in the interim, the Prize, publication of The Cure at Troy, in addition to some of his best books of original poetry, Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996). At the time of the SIU reading, Heaney was 59. Physically he had evolved into the white-haired sage portrayed in his most famous photographs.

Just prior to my trip to Carbondale I had been going through some papers left behind by my grandmother, Flora Katherine Johnson, who had died in 1995. I was fascinated by an article on “the wreck of the ol’ 97” she had forwarded to me from “The Danville Bee.” The derailment had occurred in Sept. of 1903 as the locomotive was crossing Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia. I had known the general narrative about the accident, but not in the detail the “Bee” article provided, along with graphic photographs taken at the scene of the tragedy in which 11 people were killed. As we traveled through the flat countryside of southern Illinois, I tried to summarize what I remembered from the article. Everyone, including Heaney, knew Johnny Cash’s recording “The Wreck of the Old 97,” the most contemporary version of the story, but which did not include a detail that Heaney in particular found fascinating. Among the cargo the train was carrying between Lynchburg and Danville was a shipment of canaries, probably intended for the coal mines of western Virginia and North Carolina. Somehow many of the canaries survived the plunge into Stillhouse Creek and escaped from the wreckage into the trees bordering the stream, where, being canaries, they began to sing.

Aside from the train story, I remember little of the drive to Carbondale, and even of the reading that night. Afterward, Heaney was tired, and he was to be on stage again the next day in St. Louis. It was evident that there would be no repeat of our celebration at Harvard.

I left for Johnson City the next morning, a Tuesday. I wanted to attend the reading and award ceremony in St. Louis but had to be back at ETSU by Wednesday evening to teach a class. When I next talked to Charlie on the phone, however, he revealed that all had gone well as expected. But I was more than a little surprised with Charlie’s description not of the reading itself, but of the question/answer session that followed. As often happens, someone from the audience asked Heaney where he got his ideas for poems. He explained that those ideas were generated by his attention to what went on around him, not only current events, but even conversations with the people he encountered. “Just yesterday,” he said, “Don Johnson gave me an account of a train wreck that released a flock of canaries that surrounded the horrific scene with song, a fine image around which to create a poem.” Needless to say, I was flattered by the reference and soon thereafter sent Heaney the newspaper account of the accident that my grandmother had given me. With little delay, I received a note from the poet. Despite the demands on his time, he thanked me for the article and remarked on the sharpness of the detail the photographs provided.

I heard later from my friend, Ron Smith, a fine poet, that he had met Heaney in Dublin in July of 2013, roughly two months before his death. I had told Ron about my time spent in Heaney’s company and his referencing the “Old 97” narrative following the award presentation in St. Louis in 1998, so Ron asked him if he had ever used any allusions or images from the story in a poem. “In two poems, in fact,” Heaney answered. Unfortunately, he did not provide Ron with the titles, and my subsequent searches through every post-1998 poem in my collection for some reference to the train disaster and those canaries have been unsuccessful. But my reading of Heaney’s work and the search for those allusions goes on.

*Several of the specific details in this account are from notes Charles Fanning made following the reading at Bridgewater and our evening in Cambridge.

Don Johnson is a retired professor of English and poet in residence at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of The Sporting Muse and three books of poetry: The Importance of Visible Scars, Watauga Drawdown, and Here and Gone: New and Selected Poems. Johnson has served as general editor of Aethlon: the Journal of Sport Literature, and edited Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves.


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