Seamus Heaneys poetry reading Sept. 23 in the
Schwartz Centers Emerson Concert Hall was supposed to be a
tribute to former President Bill Chace. It turned out to be a celebration
for the entire University.
Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who last graced an Emory stage
in May when he was keynote speaker at Commencement, used last weeks
reading as the platform to announce that he will deposit at Emory
a major portion of his archive of personal and literary papers,
including thousands of letters spanning Heaneys entire career
as well as printed materials, tape recordings and photographs.
When I was here this summer for Commencement, I came to the
decision that the conclusion of President Chaces tenure was
the moment of truth, and I should now lodge a substantial portion
of my literary archive in Woodruff Library, including correspondence
from many of the poets already represented in its Special Collections,
Heaney said. So I am pleased to say that these letters are
now here and that even as President Chace is departing, as long
as my papers stay here, they will be a memorial to the work he has
done to extend the Universitys resources and strengthen its
Heaneys papers augment what already is considered by many
to be the finest collection of Irish literary holdings anywhere
outside Irelands shores, according to Special Collections
Director Steve Enniss, adding that the acquisition makes Emory a
leading research center for the study of contemporary poetry.
Indeed, poetry was in the air last Tuesday in the Schwartz Center.
President Jim Wagner welcomed the packed house before giving way
to Ron Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English, who introduced
Heaney. Schuchard recalled that it had been 22 years since the poets
first visit to campus on March 9, 1981, and 15 years since Heaney
inaugurated Emorys biennial Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern
Schuchard said the friendship between Heaney and Chace (a scholar
of Irish literature) began a quarter-century ago at the University
of California-Berkeley. Indeed, during his reading Heaney debuted
a new poem, Comet at Lullwater, about the night he spent
with Bill and JoAn Chace at the Emory presidents home in 1997,
watching the Hale-Bopp Comet streak across the Southern sky.
I feel safe as ever at Emory because of the quality of the
people I meet here, Heaney said upon taking the podium. No
visit Ive ever made here has been without great personal significance.
All in all, Emory has proved itself a home away from home for many
The poet read about 15 of his works, from sonnets recalling memories
of his late mother, to Comet at Lullwater, to Digging,
one of Heaneys earliest verses.
The late-afternoon sun (the event began at 5 p.m.) beat against
Emerson Halls clerestory windows, but inside all was hushed
as the capacity crowd listened to Heaney share in Irish tones the
verse that won him a Nobel Prize in 1995.
Following the reading, University Secretary Gary Hauk surprised
the Chaces with a special gift. Chace is a particular scholar of
James Joyce, and Hauk reminded the retired president that, when
Joyce died on Jan. 13, 1941, a death mask was made of the literary
giants face. Sixteen copies of that death masknine in
plaster, seven in bronzeare known to exist, and the Chaces
proceeded to lift the veil on one of those 16. Hauk said Emory had
acquired the bronze copy and will place it in their name in Candler
Librarys new Matheson Reading Room.
For his part, Chace expressed his gratitude, both to Emory and to
Heaney for his generosity.
No poet easily casts into the hands of others the record,
intimate and telling, of his lifes work, Chace said.
That Seamus Heaney has chosen Emory as the repository of his
correspondence represents the thoughtfulness and care he brings
to all he does. I am profoundly grateful that he has chosen to honor
Emory in this way.