Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Travels with Charley

“Charley” is the name I’ve given to the stick (crutch) I never go anywhere without these days. Yes, it seems I've reached the third part of the Riddle of the Sphinx, and become a creature who goes on three legs. Someone asked me why I hadn’t mentioned the foot injury in this blog. Actually, I did mention it a while back but didn’t make much of the topic because the barebone truth is people don’t like hearing about ailments. Anyway, said foot is on the mend, and, in my usual way of trying to turn drawbacks into advantages, I’ve been making mental notes (possibly useful later on in some piece of writing) about public response to disability, even if what I’m dealing with right now doesn’t really qualify as that. As you're hobbling along, some people race in front of you with perfect aplomb and may even jostle you, though just possibly they don’t see the crutch. As for public transport, I notice that young women usually stand and offer you a seat. Almost no men do, proving once again that women are nicer than men. Some people are kind, some people look fearful, and some angry. Larkin’s “The Old Fools” is worth rereading in this context.

The above suggests that I haven’t kept to my rooms. Right. I have to go out, limping or not, otherwise the walls start closing in on me. I even taught a class for Kathryn Maris, who is in the Creative Writing department of Morley College in South London. And I attended a party for Chroma magazine (edited by a man named Shaun Levin), which publishes lesbian and gay prose and poetry. The magazine’s annual prizes were given out by the guest of honor, Sarah Waters, an author I very much admire, particularly her London-during-the-blitz novel Night Watch. Its lesbian characters are fully realized, and one of them is an ambulance driver, which is a reminder that women have risked and continue to risk their lives in wars that male leaders initiate. I spoke briefly with Sarah Waters and was impressed by her serenity, naturalness, and warmth. Appropriately, today is Remembrance or Armistice Day, and I was startled to see on BBC this morning that Britain numbers three survivors from the First World War, men well over a hundred years old. Although, if you survived the trenches, what can't you survive?

Last night I went to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End to hear Mark Lawson interview Seamus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll (whom I used to correspond with back in the late 80s, before he had become known), on the occasion of the publication of a book of interviews O’Driscoll conducted with the great laureate from the North of Ireland. It was a house packed all the way up to the rafters, further evidence that no one cares about poetry. All ages, sorts, and conditions attended and applauded wildly at the conclusion. I wonder what it’s like to be the object of so much adoration; probably intimidating, but not altogether disagreeable. Heaney led things off with some prose poems, then Lawson put a series of questions to both participants; and finally Heaney read a few poems, including an impressive recent one based on the gospel account of the paralysed man who was lowered by his friends on a pallet through the ceiling of a room where Jesus was speaking, a room too crowded for them to enter any other way.

I knew that Heaney had recovered from a minor stroke a couple of years ago, and indeed he looked thinner and rather more fragile than the young man I first met back in, I think, the spring of 1978. The occasion was a reading he gave at Yale. He wasn’t well known in the States then. Perhaps only forty people made up the audience. At that time I was living with J.D. McClatchy at Silliman College, in one of the suites of rooms allotted to faculty who were willing to serve as Resident Fellows for the Yale’s colleges, a responsibility McClatchy had briskly signed on for. I believe Heaney read several of the “Glanmore” sonnets, one of his loveliest sequences. Anyway, considering no one had arranged a reception, it seemed natural to invite him and some of the audience to have a drink at Silliman after the reading. When he came in, I recall shaking the hand of a vigorous, hesitant man with prematurely gray hair nearly down to his shoulders, wearing bluejeans and a cotton shirt. I don’t think he was fully comfortable in those surroundings, and who could blame him? Harold Bloom, who sometimes attended Yale poetry readings, didn’t attend that one; it was only later that he got to know and admire Heaney’s poetry.

The next meeting came perhaps five or six years later, when we were living in New York. Seamus (the first name seems to suit this least arrogant of poets) had given a reading at the 92nd Street YMHA, at the invitation of Grace Schulman, who was the director of the Poetry Center. Grace had people to her place down in Greenwich Village after the event. By then Seamus was a famous poet, confident, relaxed, and surrounded by admirers. With him was his wife Mary, who I think was glad to have someone to talk to while fans swarmed around her husband. (That was often my role in those years, speaking to the wives of the artists, a practice it seems that Alice Toklas automatically fell into when famous visitors came to call on Gertrude Stein.) I found Mary unaffectedly down to earth, patriotic about her origins in the North of Ireland, with a sharp eye and wit, not to mention being very beautiful. Theirs would seem to be that very rare thing in the lives of poets, a thoroughly happy marriage. (Richard and Charlee Wilbur, and Robert and Ellen Pinsky are other examples that come to mind, along with Anne-Marie Fyfe and Cahal Dallat here in London.) I forget the stimulus for it, but at some point Seamus was moved to recite one of Wyatt’s best known poems, “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind.” It was roughly at that moment that the current revival of interest in Wyatt began—and may that revival endure. I knew by then that Seamus would one day be tapped for the Nobel, there was no mistaking the ability. And perhaps it was just such a certainty that added to my reluctance to attempt to stay in touch in the years after—not that sincere admiration always suffices as a base for a long-lasting association. If I’d had enough brass to pursue the connection, there would probably have been some kind of response. I see many writers acting out their notion that being sharp and condescending is a sure sign of greatness, but Seamus’s example is enough to give the lie to that notion.

Anyway, I could meet him on the page, and that was the main thing. He's one of the few contemporary poets I've read in entirety. It's a piece of luck that we have that work in a time that isn't especially favorable to poets and poetry.

It suddenly strikes me that I haven’t mentioned the availability, beginning ten days ago, of the new collection of critical essays (see the column to the right). What jogged my memory is that one of the essays deals with Heaney’s poetry. Besides Heaney, there are essays on Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf, Auden, Bishop, Derek Walcott, Thom Gunn, Anthony Hecht, Adrienne Rich, Larkin, Marilyn Hacker, Derek Mahon, and one on poems involving travel. Worth the detour, I think.

1 comment:

Mark Granier said...

Nice post on Heaney (thanks to Katy's "Baroque In Hackney" blog for alerting me to it). I wish I could have attended the interview with O'Driscoll.

A couple of things:

"...including an impressive recent one based on the gospel account of the paralysed man who was lowered by his friends on a pallet through the ceiling of a room where Jesus was speaking, a room too crowded for them to enter any other way."

Heaney has already alluded to this parable in his sonnet 'The Skylight' (from 'Seeing Things', 1991). I am intrigued that he has written about it again. Has the new poem been published yet? I don't recall seeing it in 'District And Circle', though I can't put my hand on that book just now.

By the way, Heaney's wife's name is Marie, not Mary.