Heaney’s words music to the ears of Paul Simon in New York tribute to poet

Marie Heaney attends emotional tribute to late poet

Singer Paul Simon reads a poem during a tribute to Seamus Heaney at Cooper Union in New York City on Monday evening. Photograph: Michael Nagle

Singer Paul Simon reads a poem during a tribute to Seamus Heaney at Cooper Union in New York City on Monday evening. Photograph: Michael Nagle


For Paul Simon it was 50 ways to read a poem as one of America’s greatest songwriters practised verses by one of Ireland’s greatest poets for a Seamus Heaney memorial reading in New York. Twenty American and Irish poets and writers paid tribute by reading their favourite Heaney poems to more than 1,000 people in Cooper Union’s Great Hall on Monday night.

Mr Simon read Casting and Gathering about fishermen on opposite riverbanks casting lines, like politicians across an aisle. “I bet he would have got a kick out of me reading it,” he said. “I probably read it out loud 50 times today . . .”

The singer, who befriended Mr Heaney after a reading at the Abbey Theatre in 1991, likes the “musicality” of the “hush and lush” of the casting fishing lines and how the sounds represent “the critic in you and the other one that says to be free and believe in yourself”.

Mr Heaney had signed a copy of Seeing Things from which the poem is taken for Mr Simon, who described it as “one of my most treasured possessions”. He wouldn’t dare bring it to read from on Monday.

The “farthest” his American accent had to go into Irish pronunciation in the poem was “tuppence,” said Mr Simon. “His other poems, you really need to feel the rhythm of Ireland and Northern Ireland too. My ear wouldn’t be keen enough to hear between a Northern Irish accent and one from the south.”

“When he read it, it was perfect. It would be like me singing one of my songs. It sounds like it is effortless and then somebody else comes and has to sing it, and it doesn’t quite sound as right,” he said.

Mr Simon remembered Mr Heaney fondly and the humour of “a great anecdotalist”.

“Rarely, when it comes along, is there an Irish writer who is deeply Irish and at the same time universal. You don’t just have to be Irish to understand it – everybody can get it,” he said. “He and Yeats – he was just as powerful,” he said.

He described Heaney and English poet Philip Larkin as the two greatest poets of the latter half of the 20th century.

Mr Simon also read Heaney’s haiku, which he loves:

Dangerous pavements.

But this year I face the ice

With my father’s stick

The hushed audience soaked up readings by Mr Simon and others including novelist Colm Tóibín and poets Paul Muldoon and Eavan Boland, friends of the Nobel laureate who died last August.

Poetry groups
The event was organised by several American poetry groups and Heaney’s US publisher. Alice Quinn, the executive director of the Poetry Society of America, said each poet had selected three poems to avoid overlap. That there was no overlap showed the breadth of his work, she said. Mr Tóibín basked in a couplet from Glanmore Sonnets: “Vowels ploughed into other, opened ground, Each verse returning like the plough turned ground.”

“That is as good as it gets,” the novelist said. “Anyone like me who saw Seamus read remembered it. It would be vivid in your memory.”

Mr Muldoon, who recited Mr Heaney’s Follower, is still in denial about his friend being gone.

Mr Heaney’s wife Marie said Seamus would have been “a bit bemused” by how many had turned up but that it was the best tribute he could have “with marvellous poets choosing the poems they like”.

“Some of the poems were quite hard to listen to but the public Seamus I have got used to,” she said. “The person I miss is at home, is going home and him not being there. It is the private Seamus I miss.”