Words from the Heart

Honoring the 'tremendous spirit' of Seamus Heaney

Last Visit: Seamus Heaney at Glenn Auditorium during his "downright heroic" reading in March.
Kay Hinton

A silence descended, then Seamus Heaney’s deep Irish accent filled Glenn Auditorium. “When I am at Emory, I feel like I am in a friend’s house,” said the poet, who gave a reading of selected works at Emory on the evening of March  2. It was to be his last visit.

Heaney, recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, died August 30 at age seventy-four.

His connection with the university spanned three decades, beginning in 1981 with his first reading at Emory. He returned in 1988 to be the lecturer for the inaugural Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, and in 2003, Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) acquired a significant portion of his papers. Materials include manuscripts, photos, recordings of readings and lectures, and personal and literary correspondence containing exchanges with many other poets whose papers are also housed at MARBL.

“The loss of Seamus Heaney is a loss to an international community of poetry that knows no boundaries,” says MARBL Director Rosemary Magee 82PhD. “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.”

The collection of Heaney’s papers will be the subject of a major exhibition in 2014, “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens” curated by Geraldine Higgins, associate professor of English and director of the Irish Studies Program at Emory. Heaney had agreed to come for the February 2014 opening with his wife, Marie.

Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Poet Kevin Young, Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing and curator of literary collections and the Danowski Poetry Library at Emory, was a student of Heaney’s at Harvard. “His was a tremendous spirit that welcomed all into the country of poetry,” Young says, calling his last reading in March at Emory “not only one of the best I have seen him give, but one of the most generous, heartfelt, and downright heroic readings I have ever seen.”

That evening Heaney recounted stories in between reciting his poetry, reading works such as “The Toullund Man,” “Harvest Bow,” and “A Kite for Michael and Christopher.” When he read the latter, he reminisced about flying kites with his children and then writing a poem, which ends: “Before the kite plunges down into the wood/and this line goes useless/take in your two hands, boys, and feel/the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief./You were born fit for it./Stand in here in front of me/and take the strain.”

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