Wednesday, June 04, 2014

an evening of memories, insights and readings: Seamus Heaney Tribute at Kings Place

In March 2012 I was fortunate enough be present when Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney read his poetry at Kings Place in London during an evening celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Forward Prizes for Poetry.

Heaney won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2010 for Human Chain (reviewed in the Guardian by Colm Toibin). He shared the Kings Place stage with Forward’s creator and long-time supporter William Sieghart,  novelist Sebastian Faulks (a Forward Prize judge in 2006) and three poets who had won Forward Prizes: Jackie Kay, winner of the best single poem prize in 1992 for "Black Bottom", and Hilary Menos and Rachael Boast, winners of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2010 and 2011 for Berg and Sidereal (the latter collection also won the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry). 

On Monday of last week I again sat in the Kings Place balcony, this time for an evening of tribute to  Heaney, who died on 30 August at the age of 74 (among the many obituaries was this by Neil Corcoran in the Guardian)..

Like the Forward 20th anniversary celebration, Seanus Heaney: A Tribute was hosted by Poet in the City. This venture philanthropy charity is committed to attracting new audiences to poetry, making new connections for poetry and raising money to support poetry education. The evening was introduced and concluded by Poet in the City's Interim Chief Executive Isobel Colchester, and supported by Arts Council England.

Seats for the tribute were so much in demand that after all the tickets for Kings Place's Hall One were sold out Kings Place made 200 additional tickets available for live digital streaming in Hall Two. 

 Bernard O'Donoghue
The tribute evening featured on stage four people with special connections to the much-missed  Heaney: the Irish poet and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford Bernard O'Donoghue; Northern Irish poet and Emeritus Fellow at Hertford College, Oxford Tom Paulin; Irish film and stage actor Stephen Rea, and, from the younger generation, the Northern Irish poet Leontia Flynn who is Research Fellow at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry and Seamus Heaney poet in residence at the Bloomsbury Hotel in London.

Each of the four brought their own memories and insights on Heaney and his work. Bernard O'Donoghue, whose books include Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry (Routledge, 1994), reminded the audience of Heaney's Nobel citation: "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1995 was awarded to Seamus Heaney for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past".

O'Donoghue related Heaney's poetry to the changes within and around him, including the impact of the Northern Ireland "Troubles" on poems in his 1975 collection North.  The poems include "Punishment", relating an ancient bog woman to the barbaric punishments inflicted by the IRA. After North Heaney said he wanted to escape back to more social kind of writing and produced Field Work (1979). O'Donoghue read from it the poem "Badgers", which ends: The unquestionable houseboy's shoulders / that could have been my own.

Among the other poems he read were "The Underground", the first poem from Station Island (1984), and the  fourth of the eight-sonnet "Clearances" sonnet sequence in memory of his mother, from The Haw Lantern (1987): "Fear of affectation made her affect / Inadequacy whenever it came to/ Pronouncing words 'beyond her'. Bertold Brek."

He noted that Heaney was a great translator from many languages, and read from his translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (Faber, 1999). (He quoted from the Woody Allen film Annie Hall: "Just don't take any course where they make you read Beowulf!")

 Tom Paulin
Paulin recalled the impact of Heaney's collection Death of a Naturalist when it burst onto the then uneventful province of Northern Ireland in 1966: "I was overwhelmed as a schoolboy sixth former". The title poem has frogspawn hatching into tadpoles which then turn into frogs: "Some sat ? Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. / I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings / Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it."

Paulin and Heaney were among the six writers, three of them Catholic and three Protestant, invited to become  directors of the Field Day Theatre Company which was started in Derry as a collaboration by playwright Brian Friel and Stephen Rea in 1980. The company aimed to be inclusive of all Ireland. In 1991 it published the first three volumes of  Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing with Heaney contributing to the section on W B Yeats.

One of Paulim's anecdotes had the then Northern Ireland Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew. who "seemed to have read 'Digging'", presented the poet with a spade - in response to which Heaney joked that he looked forward to putting it in the spade rack.

 Paulin read  "Sunlight" from North (1975), "Mint" from The Spirit Level (1996) with its hints of a prison yard: Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless / Like inmates liberated in that yard. He also read "Perch" from Electric Light (2001) and "Casualty" from Field Work. The  IRA had called a curfew after the killing of 13 on Bloody Sunday but a Catholic drinker went to a Protestant pub which was bombed. There are parallels between "Casualty" and W B Yeats' "Easter, 1916".  Paulin made a quip on the lines of  "Yeats is like garlic: you can always tell his influence."

Stephen Rea
Stephen Rea paid particular attention to Heaney's plays. He read in his inimitable fashion from The Cure at Troy: a Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes and The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone.(A main pleasure of BBC Radio 4's output this year has been Rea's beautiful reading of all the stories from James Joyce's Dubliners in the Book at Bedtime slot, in 20 15-minute episodes over four weeks).

 Leontia Flynn in her role as Seamus Heaney poet in residence at the Bloomsbury Hotel
Leontia Flynn, born in 1974, was the youngest on stage by a long way. (Poet in the City, in collaboration with Lavender Hill Studios  has Leontia as the subject of this  'Poetry Portrait' in which she reads from, and talks about her poetry, and about Heaney while having her portrait painted by Phoebe Dickinson). 

From the perspective of a young Northern Irish poet from a similar rural background to Heaney, she spoke of her changing attitude to Heaney, who had at first been too big, too close, overshadowing.  She came round to him like the stages of grief, starting with denial, anger, acceptance..She read  his poem "High Summer" from Field Work. The evening concluded with Rea's reading of "The Tollund Man" from Wintering Out and "Exposure" from North.
Susannah Tarbush, London

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