A Commemorative Reading
Poet laureates from across Britain gather at the Ulster Hall in appreciation of the late Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney
'The power of poetry' is one of the overarching themes of the Seamus Heaney: Conference and Commemoration at Queen’s University. On the first day alone, topics such as ‘Sustaining nothingness in the travel poems of early Heaney’, ‘Seamus Heaney, history and water’ and ‘The melt of the real thing’ are subjects of presentations.
The conferences coincided with what would have been the 75th birthday of the poet, and the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s. Across the four days of the conference, there are several poetry readings, the first of which takes place in the Ulster Hall.
It is a place where – as we are reminded in Belfast Poet Laureate Sinéad Morrissey’s introduction – Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and James Joyce had also read. In as much as the conference is about commemoration and celebration, the four poets who read each choose some work of Heaney and some of their own, to share with the nearly capacity audience.
First to read is UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who chooses to begin with Heaney’s 'The Blackbird of Glanmore'. The poem links Heaney’s four-year-old brother, killed in a car accident, to the eponymous bird. This is a poem about both presence and absence, and an apt choice to open the evening. The echo-y Ulster Hall acoustic doesn’t help, however.
Her own poem, 'Prayer', follows the Heaney, and then a selection of others, some drawn from her collection The Bees. Her poetry is luminous and intricate, and Duffy introduces a lovely concept, which she has spoken of before: the idea that poets across history are actually all working on the same poem through time 'as if taking up a needle and adding to some vast tapestry'.
Peter McDonald, from Belfast, reads next. His choice from the works of Heaney is the fourth 'Glanmore Sonnet', a collection of poems firmly rooted in place and landscape, some of the topics covered in the Heaney conference. McDonald’s own work is also firmly fixed in geography and the natural world, particularly that of Northern Ireland.
His reading style is fluent; almost too prose-like for the rhythms and the rhyme in his writing to be fully apparent. One of his poems, a sonnet entitled 'Two Salmon', was, as he explains, written for Heaney, though he didn’t realise it at the time. His voice is clear and mellifluous, with a slightly hushed, rushed quality that demands close attention.
The next poet, Don Paterson, is a jolly Scottish dynamo with a distinct, irreverent style of presentation. He reads a number of his own recent poems, apologising for their depressing, sorrow-laden subject matter. He begins, however, with Heaney’s 'The Spoonbait', which he describes as a poem that would make a person believe in the reality of the soul.
It has a line in it about 'a shooting star going back up the darkness', and in this assembled audience of Heaney enthusiasts, it is not hard to imagine that as a reference to the now-absent poet himself. Patterson’s own poems are less densely linguistic than those of the other poets, faring better when read aloud.
Heaney was very good at reading his own work, something that is well documented. The final reader of the evening is Paula Meehan, the Irish Chair of Poetry, who first heard Heaney read in America. She speaks of the gift that was Heaney’s choosing to live in Dublin, and of what he brought to that city.
Meehan's reading voice is clear and loud, almost too much so, given the presence of the microphone at the dais, behind which she disappears several times to pick up another book to read from. She has a wonderful Dublin lilt to her voice that somehow makes a poem out of almost any spoken words. Her affection for Heaney is a fitting emotional note on which to end the evening.