LONDON (Reuters) - Seamus Heaney’s poems have been toasted as “reports from the heart” at a literary “wake” for the late Irish poet and Nobel laureate, bringing together poets, writers, actors, singers and the Irish traditional band, The Chieftains.
Poets Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley and Bernard O‘Donoghue, all longtime friends of Heaney, who died in Dublin on August 30 at the age of 74, read some of his most famous works at the event late on Wednesday.
Among them were the harrowing early poem “Mid-Term Break” in which Heaney described coming home from school at the age of 14 for the funeral of his younger brother who had been hit by a car and was buried in “a four foot box, a foot for every year”.
The Chieftains, joined by harpist Dianne Marshall and Sean-nós - old-style - singer Alyth McCormack, performed a “Lullaby for the Dead”, as well as rousing jigs and reels.
Irish novelist Edna O‘Brien and Irish poet Paula Meehan, who holds the title of Ireland Professor of Poetry, also gave readings.
With Heaney’s widow Marie and his children attending the sold-out event at the 2,500-seat Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, novelist and literary critic Andrew O‘Hagan, who often traveled with Heaney around Ireland and elsewhere, described him as ”a representative of poets’ power to replenish the imagination and affirm the interior life.
“His poems from the very beginning were reports from the heart and, sure enough, they were voicings of a human spirit issuing tolerance and empathy in desperate times,” O‘Hagan, who served as the anchor for the two-hour poetry reading and musical offering, said.
O‘Hagan said that in his poems Heaney, who was the eldest of nine children of a cattle dealer and grew up on a farm in County Derry, west of Belfast, “was a voice of the pasture and the inner ear, the bramble patch and lost time”.
One of Heaney’s most famous collections was ”Death of a Naturalist“, the eponymous poem from which, read by Muldoon, vividly describes a mass of frogs sitting in a pond ”poised like mud grenades...
“The great slime kings were gathered there for vengeance and I knew that if I dipped my hand the spawn could clutch it”.
Heaney grew up during the peak of what is known in Ireland as “the Troubles”, the three-decade-long sectarian conflict between Roman Catholic Republicans fighting for Northern Ireland’s independence from Britain and Protestant Loyalists that left some 3,500 people dead.
Heaney was a staunch Republican but opposed the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its splinter groups. His abhorrence of bloodshed came through in readings that provided graphic images of violence and abuse of power.
Playwright Simon Armitage read a passage from Heaney’s adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon classic “Beowulf” describing the man-beast Grendel slaughtering dozens of men for revenge.
Irish-Ethiopian actress Ruth Negga read from his “Burial at Thebes” based on Sophocles’s fifth century BC tragedy, in which Antigone bemoans Creon’s edict barring her from burying her brother.
After an evening that also featured a performance of Heaney’s translation of Czech composer Leos Janacek’s song cycle “Diary of One Who Vanished”, sung by English tenor Ian Bostridge with Julius Drake on the piano, O‘Hagan said he thought his late friend would have approved.
“At the end he would be embarrassed by it, of course, but secretly pleased,” O‘Hagan said.
Editing by Jeremy Gaunt