Private memories, public traces: a tribute to Seamus Heaney

‘Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens’, an exhibition at Emory University in Atlanta, was intended to be a living celebration of the poet and his work. Instead it has ended up as a fitting memorial

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 01:00

Although he eventually gave most of his manuscripts to the National Library of Ireland, in Dublin, Emory has the bulk of his letters. It also has a superb collection of printed materials, including some of Heaney’s earliest publications. There are, in addition, physical objects, chief among them the writing desk he used for many years, fashioned from oak boards salvaged from an old lecture theatre at Carysfort College, in Blackrock in Dublin. Heaney described it in a 2007 article in the Guardian as “oak whose grain had been polished by the soft shiftings of a century of student schoolmistresses”. That sheen is still there.

The exhibition is in four sections. The first deals with Heaney’s origins as a family man and a poet and includes some of his very early student publications. It opens out into correspondence with some of the poets who mattered so greatly to him, including Ted Hughes and Michael Longley, and a wonderful letter of encouragement to a 17-year-old unknown called Paul Muldoon. The second examines his writing process, with the help of manuscript drafts. The third teases out his relationship to politics and the public world. The final section is a superb audio-visual display of readings by Heaney himself and by others, notably Liam Neeson.

The overall effect is cheering and consoling: Heaney’s memory becomes, to use the phrase that opens one of his greatest elegies, Mossbawn 1 , “a sunlit absence”. The absence is palpable, but it is warmed by the energy of his personality and illuminated by the radiance of his words.

This consolation belongs in Ireland, too. Geraldine Higgins, herself originally from Ballymena, is conscious that the exhibition would mean a great deal in Heaney’s own country. “It has been an extraordinary and moving experience to curate this exhibition as it transitioned from a celebration of Ireland’s greatest living poet to a memorial honouring the achievements of a lifetime,” she says. “Seamus Heaney’s first memories and last writings show an intense awareness of place as the centre and source of his imaginative gift.

“Indeed, even though Heaney the man travelled, lectured and taught in Britain, Europe and America, Heaney the poet remained firmly rooted in south Co Derry. I wanted to bring a sense of Ireland to Atlanta in maps and images, sounds and words. It would be wonderful and fitting to bring the Heaney exhibition back to Ireland, where those words began.”

Rather poignantly, the central presence in the exhibition is a beautiful kite. It refers both to Heaney’s kite poems for his sons and to A Kite for Aibhín , a late poem for his granddaughter. In it the kite rises like a “thin-stemmed flower”, higher and higher until the string breaks. But the breaking of what holds it to earth and to human reality is not mourned: “The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.” As usual, Heaney himself put it best.

Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens is at the Robert W Woodruff Library, at Emory University in Atlanta, until November 25th; iti.ms/1hMHlAf

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