An Irishman’s Diary: Jack Harte on William Meredith’s pilgrimage to Yeats’s Sligo
‘I am 87, and I am in Ireland. I am a happy man’
Jack Harte and former poet laureate of the United States William Meredith
He was an icon of world literature. Former poet laureate of the United States, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and just about every other accolade worth acquiring. Intimate friend and confidante of Robert Frost and WH Auden. John Berryman dedicated one of his “Dream Songs” to him.
His friendship and interaction with the other major American poets of the 20th century was legendary, including Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, James Merrill and many many more.
And he was sitting across the room from me at a writers’ conference in Sofia in 2005. He had a special relationship with Bulgaria, having visited that country many times during the cold war, and having introduced many Bulgarian poets to the US public both in person and through the translation of their work.
William Meredith had a gift for friendship. And he radiated what I can describe only as an aura of humanity. He was in a wheelchair, having had to claw his way back to some mobility and some command of his speech after an extremely severe stroke 22 years earlier. Yet he attended every session of the conference, and also joined in the informal sessions in the lounge of the hotel every evening.
And one of those evenings I was sitting beside him. For want of a better opener, I asked him if he had ever been to Ireland. I was surprised not only by the answer but also by the emotion that welled up in his eyes.
“No”, he said, “and I have always intended to visit Ireland. Yeats was my favourite poet.”
“What age are you now, William?” I asked.
He laughed. “I am 86.”
“Don’t you think it is time you made the trip?” I joked.
He laughed too.
“I am from Co Sligo,” I said. “So if you come, I will give you the guided tour of Yeats’s country.”
I thought no more of it. Such invitations are cheap currency at writers’ conferences. However, shortly after the conference, I had an email from Richard Harteis, William’s life-long partner and fellow poet. Richard had been heroic in carrying William through the trauma of the stroke, and through his rehab. And he was still ensuring that William led a full and happy life.
“If we could take you up on the invitation to visit Ireland,” he said, “it really would be the fulfilment of a life’s dream for William.”
I was amazed. If it had such importance, why had he never acted on it before? It couldn’t have been lack of money. William had been a professor in Connecticut College and hailed from the New England aristocracy – the descendants of the original immigrants – an ancestor of his was portrayed on a banknote in the 19th century. However 22 years of medical expenses had no doubt consumed whatever affluence he once enjoyed.
I organised invitations for them to give readings at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin and at the Yeats Memorial Building in Sligo. That enabled Richard to secure sponsorship from the US state department for the visit. And in the summer of 2006 they arrived.
William was beaming. Every time I looked at him, his face lit up, and he said over and over: “I am 87, and I am in Ireland. I am a happy man.”
After the reading in the Writers’ Centre we headed west where I hosted them in my little cottage near Easkey. And from there we explored all the places associated with Yeats – the Lake Isle of Innisfree, Glencar Waterfall, Lissadell, etc.
But I also wanted him to see the place where Yeats watched the “Wild Swans at Coole”. William had written his own poem about Yeats and the swans, noting that if they flew off lover by lover, there was one left out – the 59th. It was a wet windy day that we took the trip to Coole. The lake is quite a distance from the site of Lady Gregory’s house and there is a nice walkway to it. However for a wheelchair pushing through oozy mud, it was a challenge.
But we were determined to reach it even if we had to carry William on our backs, and William delighted in the visceral determination to reach the place he had already visited in his imagination. We got there. The swan count was three, but William was nevertheless a happy man.
The following summer I was to join William on a reading tour in Connecticut. However he was now in hospital, and, tragically, my visit to New London was to say farewell. He died a few days after I returned to Ireland.
A documentary film that was compiled to celebrate his lifetime achievement ended with a beautiful photo of William sitting inside the window of Thoor Ballylee, with a beaming smile, and I could see what was on his lips. “I am 87, and I am in Ireland. I am a happy man.”