StAnza 18/3/10: Seamus, myth and magic

March 19, 2010

We’re enjoying some glorious weather here in St Andrews, despite a brave wind, upending wheelie bins and scattering pigeons. Apparently it’s gusting in from Ireland, or so we’ve heard it said. It was doubly apt then, that winds of different kinds blew through Seamus Heaney’s sold out performance last night. There were winds fit for kites – the one in the old favourite ‘A Kite for Michael and Christopher’, a new one for his new granddaughter ‘wee Aibhín’. There was the ill wind that brought a stroke a few years ago, and the winds of change as he sampled new material from forthcoming collection Human Chain (out in September from Faber, ‘all being well’).

He opened the first act with readings from new work. He declared he was wracked with nerves. You wouldn’t have known. As well as tackling the difficult period after the stroke (in which he re-imagines his descent down the stairs to the waiting ambulance, passed from hand to hand, as the Biblical figure passed through a roof hole to the feet of Jesus; the silent journey in a speeding ambulance with his wife is evoked through Donne’s ‘The Extasie’ – their souls commingling above, their bodies mute). ‘Album’ contained five snapshots of his family life: his father, his own sons, his parents on their honeymoon (which he, unbidden, also attended). This was intensely powerful, moving stuff, performed with charm and humility, wearing its intellect lightly. There was Latin and the Bible, Dante and MacCaig, history, myth and strangeness all embroidered into one set in which each poem spoke to the next. And that was the first half.

In the second half, he read old favourites. He didn’t read ‘Digging’ (‘Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.’), though someone, he said, had inquired, feeling that particular one has had its fair share of renderings. He opted instead for three from the Clearances sequence, for his mother, on folding sheets, on the shift that occurred with her last breath. There was ‘The Strand at Loch Beg’, for his second cousin Colum McCartney, innocent victim of the Northern Irish Troubles. Each poem came with a tale, illumination, a way of looking at the things we’ve read before with a fresh eye.

Elsewhere in a very exciting StAnza Thursday, Luis Munoz and John Burnside read, followed by Anne-Marie Fyfe at the Parliament Hall 5 O’Clock Verses; Grevel Lindop delivered the StAnza lecture, entitled ‘Myth, Magic and the Future of Poetry‘. He’s been kind enough to pop it on his website so you can read it too. Angela McSeveney read over pies and pints at lunchtime and Italian poet Valerio Magrelli read alongside Glasgow’s own Hamish Whyte. I name but a few. Speaking of 5 O’Clock Verses, the next edition calls. Kei Miller and Tiffany Atkinson up next. Seamus Heaney is in conversation of Dennis O’Driscoll about Stepping Stones, Dennis’s biography of Heaney, ‘tells of his life as a poet, from writing on his childhood bedroom wall to winning the Nobel Prize’.

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