Why Heaney?

I first encountered Seamus Heaney in person during my undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. I had originally been admitted to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science double-major program, having won two of the university’s most prestigious scholarships, been introduced to the Chancellor, assigned a high-ranking advisor from the Engineering faculty, and generally been welcomed to campus as a potential next Bill Gates. This was during the height of the dot-com era, when venture capitalists wooed by the poetic visions of high-tech courtiers flung open (seemingly) bottomless coffers.

Imagine the look on my guidance counselor’s face when I told her that I wanted to transfer into the English department. My grades were good; what was wrong? I told her that I simply wanted to pursue something more–how could I say it?–human. She suggested that I consider a career in the exciting new field of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research.

After signing a legal contract wherein I promised that I would not, under any circumstance, try to beg my way back into the Engineering department, I found myself sitting auditorium-style with three hundred other students, eagerly attending a lecture by Robert Hass. Within minutes, I felt all three hundred students disappear, and I seemed to be sitting fireside with my favorite poetry-loving uncle. Professor Hass mentioned that Seamus Heaney was returning to Berkeley to discuss his new translation of Beowulf, and to read some poems. He encouraged us all to attend.

After graduation, I followed a high-tech career up to the executive level, reading and writing poetry less and less with each promotion. I started my own company, got married, and moved out to the country to be closer to my parents, who were soon to be grandparents. After the death of our infant son, all my worldly ambition evaporated. In poetry, I found solace, and a means to engage the complexity of human experience on its own terms–not as a reductive conclusion or homily, but an expansive and containing act of art. Still, I felt divided–between the new self that embraced the wildness of a contemporary American voice, and the keen, impressionable undergraduate quoting Keats late into the night.

Seamus Heaney appeared before me, blinking under the spotlight. He read poems and told stories, explained the music of Anglo Saxon, quipped about his traditional education that, “those of us who chose Latin were bound for the seminary; those who studied French were bound for something known as ‘the world.'” Here was a man who navigated many worlds: Protestant and Catholic, farmer and academician, poet and critic. In his poetry, he seemed to take on the best of the British lyric tradition, the contemporary voice, the Irish tradition of music and story, Classics, folklore, the Bible, free verse, form–and tackle subjects as close to the bone as the death of friends and family during the atrocities of twentieth-century Northern Ireland. Yet the man was also a celebrant of simplicity, humanity, and hope.

This is why I chose, after recommitting to my writing by undertaking an MFA, to examine the work of Seamus Heaney closely. In the coming weeks and months, I will continue to post some of my research and revelations to this website, and welcome your thoughts.