Emory Remembers Seamus Heaney

Sep. 6, 2013

Seamus Heaney

By Steve Frandzel

The recent death of Irish Nobel-laureate poet Seamus Heaney sparked an outpouring of sentiment from around the world. At Emory, where Heaney had a relationship that lasted more than thirty years, a number of individuals touched by the poet’s words and kindness spoke out. A major portion of the poet’s papers and letters were acquired in 2003 by Emory Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL).

Kevin Young, Haygood Professor of English and curator of Emory’s Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at MARBL, was Heaney’s student at Harvard in 1990. He spoke on an August 30 NPR broadcast: “[Heaney] wrote about growing up in the country and visiting the country, and my grandparents were from the country, so just personally he gave me license to write about Louisiana where my family was from, and I hadn't seen that rural tradition represented in such a realistic powerful vernacular way as Heaney did. . . . He could really draw you in even if you thought you didn't like poetry. You might not have known what poetry was if it wasn't for Heaney.”

To listen to the interview, click here.

Young also remarked on Heaney’s teaching influence in a Chronicle for Higher Education article, saying that he “created a sense that being a writer involves writing, of course, but also the world of literature and friendship and community.” Also quoted in the article were Geraldine Higgins, associate professor of English and director of the Irish Studies program at Emory, and William M. Chace, president emeritus of Emory and now an honorary professor of English emeritus at Stanford University. Higgins commented on how graciously Heaney met the many demands on his time: “His travel diaries must have just been black with dates and commitments,” she said. Higgins, who is curator of next year’s Schatten Gallery exhibit, “Seamus Heaney: the Music of What Happens,” added that students who visit Heaney’s archives at Emory learn that literature is not just a gift from the muse, but the labor of a craftsman.   Chace noted that Heaney was “humorous, calm, fond of people, and unpretentious.” He also told the Chronicle that in honor of his retirement in 2003, Heaney read his poem, “The Comet at Lullwater, about seeing the comet Hale-Bopp from the roof of the president’s house. 

To read the article, click here.

U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey,  Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing, described Heaney’s influence on her life and work in The Daily Beast. She wrote that “When I finally did meet Seamus . . . I was stunned by his accessibility and generosity of spirit—two things quite evident in his poems. Often it seems that there are writers who are their best selves on the page. That Seamus Heaney was as genuine and deeply admirable in person as in his poems was to me a gift, then as now.”

To read the article, click here.

In the Emory Report, MARBL Director Rosemary Magee, vice president and secretary of the university, was quoted as saying that “The loss of Seamus Heaney is a loss to an international community of poetry that knows no boundaries. At Emory we feel this loss very personally as he was a member of our community. His visits, his poetry readings, his papers—his very being gave him a presence here that was meaningful and tangible. . . . Those of us who got to know him will always be touched by the generosity of his spirit, the beauty of his language, and the power of his imagination.”

In the same article, Ronald Schuchard, professor emeritus of English at Emory, added that “He shaped many lives at Emory. I've received at least 25 emails this morning from former Emory students, some from classes as far back as 1980.”

To read the article, click here.

Heaney’s life and work will be celebrated at a special event, “Remembering Seamus Heaney,” on September 10 from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Jones Room at the Robert W. Woodruff Library. Young, Magee, Schuchard, and Higgins will join other members of the Emory community who will share recollections and read some of Heaney’s poems. The tribute is free and open to the public. More details here.

In spring 2014, Heaney’s work will be the subject of a major, long-planned exhibition, based on MARBL’s holdings, in the Schatten Gallery.

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