Crossing new borders in pursuit of Seamus Heaney
Doctoral study of poet opened the door to technology and the internet
I have always been reluctant to use the honorific “Dr” before my name, in
part because there was already a Dr Lillington in the family: my adored late father, who practised, as well as taught, medicine. He was the “real” doctor, we would joke. But after I finished the lonely endurance test that is the completion of a doctoral dissertation, he was the one always delighted to inform people that there were now two Dr Lillingtons.
Working on and off, I took the best part of a decade to finish my PhD in the mid- 1990s. Unlike many of my fellow doctoral students over the years, however, I never reached the too-common endpoint of finding my topic had grown tedious.
Quite the opposite. I was often exasperated with my own writing, tired of sitting before a blank computer screen and a blinking cursor. But once I dived into my topic, I was lost in work for hours, reconsidering, finding something new. However (and I know this will surprise some), my topic wasn’t in computer science – it was on the poetry of Seamus Heaney.
Like so many who love technology, I came to it from a non-technical background and like so many other people across Ireland and the world, I felt an inward wrench when I heard of this singular poet’s death.
I wasn’t a personal friend by any means, although we had met several times over the years. But I knew him well, as so many did, through the crucible of his work.
A fifth of my life was spent in close consideration of his ideas and thoughts, his written door into the dark tussle with himself and his world, expressed through his evocative poetry and elegant essays.
I spent a joyful day with him in California in the early 1990s. He had come to San Jose State University, where I was teaching, to give readings and be guest of honour at a fundraising dinner for the university’s writing programme. It was pre-Nobel, but he was already hugely popular in the US.
I sent my composition students off to hear him read. They grumbled about that – being required to do something extra-curricular, and even worse, involving poetry.
I wondered whether my very American students would get anything at all from any poet, much less one whose subjects and imagery were so intrinsically Irish.
I wanted them to understand poetry was not a musty bygone art, entombed between dusty books covers, but a living vocation that summoned extraordinary people.
Oh me of little faith. My students were utterly entranced. They packed the audito- rium, overflow students sitting in the aisles. They were bowled over by Heaney’s “music of what happens”, those urban, black, Hispanic, Asian and white kids who had never heard a real poet, never mind a butter-churn or a blacksmith at work.
The next day, I drove him to San Francisco, with numerous detours
including to a cathedral, an Irish pub and an Italian restaurant. He introduced me to several people by mischievously noting: “I’m her subject.”
A day of laughter, Heaney’s sharp wit and great conversation, although by some unspoken agreement, I didn’t ask him about his writing and he didn’t ask me about mine. He signed a book for me: “Good luck with the dig.”
What does any of this have to do with technology? Nothing and everything.
Heaney was intrinsic to my own discovery of technology.
As a postgrad, I was entitled to an email address and had internet access. In the course of my research, I was soon exploring the young, pre-web internet, eventually transitioning to the web.
I joined UseNet discussion groups, transferred archive material from
universities around the world, checked card catalogues and collections from libraries thousands of miles away. Online,
I met other doctoral students and helpful academics for discussions on Irish literature, politics, critical theory, and Heaney – and I had a new, direct line of communication to my father who, as an academic, also had an email address. We developed a rich relationship through emails and our joint, growing love of computers.
Journalism was my stopgap job while I waited to do the scheduled oral defence of my Heaney dissertation. In that role, I swiftly found myself writing on a new passion: technology and the internet – born out of my Heaney research over the years. I imagine that Heaney – who wrote so gorgeously of unexpected juxtapositions, of ordinary marvels, of parental relationships and the intensity of loss when a parent dies – would have liked the idea that a poet, and poetry, could clear unexpected paths to such disparate places.
It’s hard to believe that mellifluous voice is gone, the digging pen at rest.