Seamus Heaney and I at Midnight at the Ritz by James F. Olwell

In 1984, still well before his 1995 Nobel Prize, Seamus Heaney was already Ireland’s best-known poet. As I hosted an Irish cultural radio show (CINQ 102.5 FM) it was an easy decision to head over from Mile End to McGill to see what the fuss was all about.

After his reading, which, once people became attuned to his northern Irish accent, found an appreciative and good-humoured audience, there was time for a few questions. One student asked, “what is it about rhyme with you, isn’t it a bit passé?” I knew I could do no worse and raised my hand. My first question was eminently forgettable and then I asked if I could interview him for my show. There was a murmur of disapproval in the wings, but he said to come see him after the talk, which I did. A few tight-collared academics tried to block my way, but I called out “Seamus” and he beckoned me forth. Midnight the same evening at his hotel was his only availability.

His scraggy face, bushy hair and lightly musical accent combined to produce a delightful and friendly mien. A mouth that turned down at the corners belied his readiness to laugh given the least provocation.

He opened the interview with two glasses into which he poured two inches of John Powers. We triple-clinked “sláinte,” cheers and santé and I pressed the record button.

He expressed delight at the size and appreciation of the McGill audience earlier and pondered on who comes to poetry readings. He was glad to see people from “both town and gown” as well as those “with an Irish hankering.” He admitted to sometimes underestimating the growing genuine interest in poetry. The poet is perceived to have a function within the world as “keeper of some kind of cultural memory, rooted in a sense of belonging.” This function would not necessarily be to break down barriers, but to escape them or to go around them.

He felt the traditional role of the poet in Ireland was possibly overstated, but admitted it conferred a certain status as a public figure. “A poet’s name might be known even by those who did not read poetry, but had some sense of a poet as meaning something within their world. If a poem is published in the Irish Times, it was sure that the top civil servants would at least glance at it. Certain ministers might read it, they might even know you. The size of the culture plays a role. Poetry can be an important lung for the spirit to breathe in.”

“But it is always a function of poetry,” he insisted, “to be in some way with the defeated. The poetic imagination can’t survive for very long among the triumphant and the privileged. It needs to know the whole picture of reality. Its morality must remember the shape of the world, the wounds as well as the glories. The best writers are still haunted by the rest of the world that isn’t there.”

I asked him to read a poem for my listeners and he chose “Sweeney Praises the Trees,” based on an Irish mythological story situated in County Antrim, not far from where he grew up, and nearby to his school where camped a family of Tinkers named Sweeney. Sweeney was the king of Dal-Arie who, upon finding St. Ronan building a foundation for a church without first asking, “laid violent hands on him” and ordered him out of the territory. The saint then cursed Sweeney, that he’d be turned into a bird, which curse was fulfilled at the Battle of Moira (AD 637). Thereafter Sweeney lived in the trees in constant discord between his incurable loneliness and his love of the wild.

“This was probably one of the first Gaelic-Celtic/Roman-Christian confrontations,” he said, and appeared delighted when I knew of the great poetic battles between Celtic bards and the newly dominant Christian saints, as to whose god was the greater, and why.

I then had the courage to read to him one of his own poems “St. Francis and the Birds,” from Death of a Naturalist. He smiled, “now we’ll have to take you with us when we tour.” My delight was unswayed by never hearing of this again.

Finally, I had the temerity to ask what weaknesses he had as a poet. He responded that his mentor Bernard MacLaverty had told him an anecdote about W. Somerset Maugham. When asked the same question at an interview in Paris the English writer had stated: “My books don’t have lyrical quality.” Whenever any critic reviewed any book by Maugham subsequently, after bouts of praise they would always end with “of course, his writing has no lyrical quality.” We spoke no more of weaknesses.

Heaney recalled Wallace Steven’s belief that a writer’s only possession is “his sense of the world, the way your nervous system picks things up. My own sense is derived from rural Ulster, where people are watchful, tentative, silent, ironical. I have a fondness for immediate things, reading, and pleasure in people, places and words. I am suspicious of those labels, someone too readily called bad or too readily called good.”

He died twenty-nine years later in August of 2013. “My writing,” he had said, “finds itself part of the church of poets.”

Jim Olwell organized and directed (1973) the Irish Arts Center in NYC (1972–78), where he was first published. He was community organizer with the CLSC NDG from 1991–2013. He has enjoyed reading recently at the Yellow Door, the Westmount Visual Arts Centre and Argo Bookshop. He’s looking to publish two villanelles recently produced at the QWF winter poetry workshop (with Robyn Sarah). Finally, he received an Outstanding Citizen award for 2013 from the borough of Côtes-des-Neiges/Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

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