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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: April 14, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    Happy birthday Mr Heaney

    Fiona McCann

    Happy (belated – oops!) birthday to a Nobel laureate with a fierce way with words. Attempting to choose a favourite from among Seamus Heaney’s offerings means finding all those perfect pinpointings of language once again, and revelling in them. So will it be Personal Helicon (“I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing”) or Postscript (“You are neither here nor there, A hurry through which known and strange things pass / As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open”)? Or Casualty, or The Skunk, or all the other possibilities, poems that move me newly on new readings? Today, I’m choosing (and pasting below) the first Heaney poem I ever met, the introduction, like that for so many Irish children, made in school when mid-term breaks were part of my lexicon. Now it’s your turn to choose a favourite. If you have one. If not, here’s mine. 

    Mid-term Break

    I sat all morning in the college sick bay
    Counting bells knelling classes to a close,
    At two o’clock our neighbors drove me

    In the porch I met my father crying–
    He had always taken funerals in his stride–
    And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

    The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
    When I came in, and I was embarrassed
    By old men standing up to shake my hand

    And tell me they were “sorry for my trouble,”
    Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
    Away at school, as my mother held my hand

    In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
    At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
    With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

    Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
    And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
    For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

    Wearing a poppy bruise on the left temple,
    He lay in the four foot box as in a cot.
    No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

    A four foot box, a foot for every year. 

    • Pablo says:

      I attended Mr. Heaney’s first public reading (I believe), which was at Harvard University. There were about two dozon of us there, in a nice room with a blazing fireplace. I wasn’t “into” poetry, but I took an interest in it after hearing Seamus Heaney. It was an evening I have never forgotten. (At about the same time I went to a talk given by “The Cruiser” This event drew a very big crowd, and it was also memorable — but for a different reason: He insulted a good part of his audience !)

    • ciaran says:

      Have seen Heaney read a couple of times, the last time (at last years Flat Lake Festival) was the best. The highlight of it was definitely my new favourite Heaney poem – the Blackbird at Glanmore. (Though Personal Helicon runs it close!)

    • Eimear says:

      I first had that poem read aloud to me when I was about ten, and it stunned me. Still packs an emotional wallop.

    • Catherine says:

      It’s The Early Purges for me. It was about the only thing that dragged even a hint of emotion out of my battleaxe first year English teacher and still evokes the clearest, most gruesome images.

    • Fiona says:

      Pablo: What luck! I’d have loved to have been there. I think he reads his work beautifully – what a compelling voice he has. Don’t get me started on the Cruiser though, or I’ll be ranting for this entire comment box. Eejit.

      Ciaran: The Blackbord at Glanmore is a good choice, and better when its read aloud.

      Eimear: Yeah, it’s lump-in-throat stuff.

      Billy: Yeah, read that. Not quite in agreement though, not about all of them. Course, true enough about some of ‘em, and it’s all subjective yackity ya, but “I would be extremely surprised if, in 100 years’ time, anyone rated their work.” I have to say, Id’ be surprised if, in 100 years time, people didn’t rate Seamus Heaney’s work, whatever about Morrison.

      Catherine: The Early Purges – heartbreaking. The kittens scraping against the bucket … It’ll stay with me for a long time.

    • Id be extremely suprised to be alive in 100 YEARS TIME!I so would I Fiona,so would I.Pearl buck won the nobel prize,James Joyce wasnt even nominated,Churchill won it etc,Heaney is the foremost of english language poets of today but lets face it wheres the competition?

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