Seamus Heaney/A Memoir
Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney at the University College Dublin, February 11, 2009. Wikipedia Commons Photo.
Man of Words and Grace
Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobelist who epitomized the poet, shook off his mortal coil on August 30, 2013. He was widely eulogized. English poet Andrew Motion stated on BBC that “Seamus was person of exceptional grace,” and playwright Tom Stoppard wrote in The Guardian that “Seamus never had a sour moment, neither in person nor on paper.” After an almost two-decade-long friendship with the great bard, including sharing a traditional Irish supper of bangers and mash at a Temple Bar pub in Dublin only a few years before his death, I can tell you of an instance that might cast some doubt on a life of “grace” without “a sour moment,” if only provisionally. But this isn’t a story of grievance or criticism; it’s a story about character, about being magnanimous and big enough to apologize.
As I said, Seamus was my friend. But it didn’t begin that way; in fact, it began quite the opposite. Professor Heaney almost destroyed my career. To tell the story, I have to back up almost two decades ago, to the fall of 1996. I had only recently been named poetry editor at Rosebud magazine, then a fledging start-up with only a handful of back issues to brag about. To impress the editor-in-chief and publisher with my competence, I wanted to land a poem by a major poet. I had my sights set on Seamus Heaney, who had received the Nobel Prize for Literature the year before. I learned that Professor Heaney divided his year between teaching at Harvard in the fall semester and teaching at Trinity University in Dublin in the spring. Being late fall, I wrote to him at Harvard asking to publish his poetry. I included a couple copies of Rosebud. Professor Heaney received the letter just before leaving Boston to go home for Christmas. He hastily replied, sending me a translation of an old Gaelic poem entitled “I am Raferty” accompanied by a kind letter on Harvard stationery expressing his gratitude and telling me to send his complimentary copies (and honorarium) to his address in Ireland.
Needless to say, the folks at Rosebud were ecstatic.
Months later—I recall it was late February, 1997—after mailing the proofs and payment as promised, Rosebud’s editor-in-chief, Rod Clark, received a phone call from the Nobelist himself. Let’s just say the tone wasn’t appreciative. Instead, The Great Poet was charging that had I stolen his poem. He accused me of somehow infiltrating his office and stealing the poem from a manuscript he was then completing.
I was far from my home in Alaska at the time, in Atlanta at the time, giving a reading of my poetry at some college when Rod called me to relate the news. At first I sat on the edge of my motel bed, dumbfounded, as he fervently related his phone conversation with Professor Heaney. As I listened, anxiety and panic swelled inside me. Eventually, I got up and paced the room, wearing a thin path into the cheap carpet. As a teacher of poetry, I often remind students of the importance of poetry, citing another poet-Nobelist, Octavio Paz, who said that “poetry is an operation capable of changing the world.” In spite of my personal belief in poetry’s value, I found it hard to imagine that Professor Heaney actually believed that I had flown to Harvard, climbed into a campus building window at night clad in black and with a flashlight in hand, jimmied open the door to his office, and, like a practiced cat burglar, rifled through his dark office in search of a poem to steal and later publish for the world to see. If that wasn’t audacious enough, I’d also send copies of the magazine to the unknowing victim with accompanying honorarium.
I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Was this some kind of prank?
But Rod assured me this was no joking matter. Despite our growing friendship, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was asking himself what the hell kind of mess had I got the magazine into?
Despite my skepticism that Seamus believed that I had purloined one of his poems, the laureate was adamant, threatening legal action. Could this crazy quarrel damage Rosebud’s future? Would it destroy my blossoming career as a professor of literature and creative writing? My future literally hung in the uncertain outcome.
I felt like throwing up.
I assured Rod that I had secured the poem properly. That’s when I pulled my ace in the hole, so to speak. I told him that back home in Anchorage, Alaska I had Professor Heaney’s letter on Harvard stationery in a Harvard envelope, postmarked from Harvard’s mail room. But I was thousands of miles away and wouldn’t return home for days. The issue at hand demanded prompt action to avert a lawsuit. Frantically, I called home and left a message for my wife to fax the letter and envelope cover to Rod. Meanwhile, outraged at the false assertion made by Seamus and armed with this knowledge, Rod called Professor Heaney’s assistant at Harvard and related our discussion. It is my understanding that some very tart exchanges took place.
Eventually, the indisputable evidence was faxed to Professor Heaney’s assistant at Harvard, who subsequently faxed it to Ireland. On seeing the letter and his signature, Seamus remembered what had happened. In his haste to pack up his Harvard office to leave for Dublin for Christmas, he had forgotten that he had sent me the poem at all. Needless to say, he apologized profusely, sending Rod a three-page letter of apology. The fax included a personal letter to me, as well. I think Seamus clearly recognized not only his own error, but also the hell he must have put me through—undeservedly to be sure. To make amends, Seamus asked how he could make it up to me. I asked him to write a blurb for a poetry book I was then completing (Songs from an Outcast), but he declined, telling me it had become his policy not to write blurbs for other writers. Instead, he gave me a poem to publish as a limited edition broadside as part of a series I was then publishing under Salmon Run Press, an independent press I owned at the time.
Seamus Heaney letter to John Smelcer.
Over the ensuing years, we wrote to each other periodically, sharing news of our lives and even sharing new poems to look over and giving feedback. We even met in Dublin. Although it took longer than a decade, Seamus did eventually provide a blurb for one of my poetry books (Raven). The last time we communicated was a year or two before his death. As usual, Seamus was hard at work on a new poetry manuscript.
Andrew Motion said that Seamus was a man of exceptional grace, and he was right, for it takes grace to admit when one has wronged another and to make amends. In our long friendship, despite the rough beginning, I learned that Seamus was indeed the kind of man as described in the splendid eulogies about his life and work. Although his pen will be forever stilled, Seamus Heaney has left us a wellspring of moving, affecting poetry which, like that of his worthy Irish Nobel prize-winning predecessors—Shaw, Yeats, and Beckett—will be an enduring gift to the world.
About the author:
John Smelcer, the author of a numerous books of poetry and ethnic American literature, was recently a Clifford D. Clark Fellow at Binghamton University in upstate New York. You can read more about him in “About Us.”