Helen Vendler on meeting Seamus Heaney
The distinguished US critic shares memories of the first and last time she met the poet in Sligo and a literary road trip they shared
Seamus Heaney and Helen Vendler outside Sligo Town Hall in 1987 for the WB Yeats Summer School
Both Seamus and I were frequently at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo (he for a reading, I for lecturing) ever since 1975. It was the custom for the school to invite younger Irish poets to read, and one night in 1975, as a young man began to read his poems from the stage, I sat up, electrified, and thought, “WHO is this?”
He didn’t know me: after the reading, when I asked him whether the poems were soon to be published, I was simply an anonymous middle-aged American woman, a tourist to Sligo. He showed me the galleys from which he was reading, and said yes, the book was coming out shortly.
“Can I ask you some questions about things I didn’t understand?” I asked.
He replied, “Yes, why don’t you take the galleys overnight and we can meet tomorrow in the hotel?”
He gave me his galleys – they were of North – and the next day he patiently explained dialect words, bog bodies, and phases of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Very gratefully, I thanked him and began to hand him back his galleys.
“Oh, you can keep them,” said he, in one of his typically generous gestures.
I went back to the United States, read the poems intensely, and asked to review North in the New York Times. Seamus and I remained friends until his death, and I wrote about his work many times over 25 years. I last saw him in Sligo about 10 days before he died – and of course none of us expected that sudden death. I miss him more than I can say.
I teach the poetry to American students, and although they find some of it difficult (since Irish history is foreign to them) they also find it instantly admirable and gripping. His work is so various that all readers find in it poems that speak directly to them. This picture shows us outside Sligo Town Hall in 1987.
On Max Gate, Thomas Hardy’s home
Seamus loved the poetry of Thomas Hardy, and one year he and Marie took me to see Hardy’s birthplace; in another year we drove to see the churchyard in which Hardy’s heart is buried. In (I think) 2000, Seamus and Marie decided that they wanted to show me Max Gate, Hardy’s house in his last years.
It wasn’t a day in which the house was open to the public, but Seamus decided to throw himself on the mercy of the current owners. He rang the bell, and then apologised to the woman who opened the door by saying he had a visitor from the United States to whom he was eager to show Max Gate before she left. The woman listened politely and then said – after a moment’s hesitation – “Aren’t you Seamus Heaney?” He confessed that he was, and we were courteously shown the house, including the upstairs room, not open to the public, where Hardy died.
Marie Heaney wanted to take a picture of Seamus and me together to mark the day, and that is the photo I’ve sent on.
With Seamus and Marie I saw Hadrian’s Wall, Tennyson’s house Farringford on the Isle of Wight, East Coker, Coleridge’s Nether Stowey, the Langholm churchyard where Hugh MacDiarmid is buried (Christopher Murray Grieve, his real name, is on the tombstone). Since I didn’t dare drive on the “wrong” side of the road, I wouldn’t have been able to reach those places except in Seamus’s car. I’m forever grateful.
Helen Vendler is one of the most distinguished literary critics of our time. A professor in the Department of English at Harvard for many years, she has written acclaimed studies of Yeats, Herbert, Keats, Stevens, Shakespeare and Dickinson, and long championed Seamus Heaney’s work. Seamus Heaney, her dazzling and beautifully written study of the poet’s life and work, was published in 1998 to rave reviews, and Heaney dedicated The Spirit Level to her. Helen will be in conversation live from the US at Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy, at 4pm on Saturday, June 10th. Tickets are £5 and available to book online at seamusheaneyhome.com