September 29, 2003

Heaney honors Chace, Emory with papers

Michael Terrazas

Seamus Heaney’s poetry reading Sept. 23 in the Schwartz Center’s 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 week’s 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 Heaney’s 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 Chace’s 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 University’s resources and strengthen its purpose.”

Heaney’s papers augment what already is considered by many to be the finest collection of Irish literary holdings anywhere outside Ireland’s 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 poet’s first visit to campus on March 9, 1981, and 15 years since Heaney inaugurated Emory’s biennial Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

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 president’s 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 I’ve ever made here has been without great personal significance. All in all, Emory has proved itself a home away from home for many writers.”

The poet read about 15 of his works, from sonnets recalling memories of his late mother, to “Comet at Lullwater,” to “Digging,” one of Heaney’s earliest verses.

The late-afternoon sun (the event began at 5 p.m.) beat against Emerson Hall’s 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 giant’s face. Sixteen copies of that death mask—nine in plaster, seven in bronze—are 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 Library’s 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 life’s 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.”