Remembering Seamus Heaney

By Leslie King | Emory Report | Aug. 30, 2013

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The world-renowned poet Seamus Heaney had a relationship with Emory that spanned three decades. Emory Photo/Video.

The Aug. 30 death of world-renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney at age 74 touches a personal and cultural nerve that runs from his home in Dublin to Emory University.  

Heaney's relationship to Emory spanned over three decades.  

In 2003, Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) acquired a significant portion of Heaney’s papers. Materials include manuscripts, photos, recordings of readings and lectures, and personal and literary correspondence containing insightful exchanges with many poets whose papers are also housed at MARBL.  

MARBL's holdings of Heaney's works "are among the best in the world," said MARBL Director Rosemary Magee when Heaney came to read at Emory in March of this year.  

Magee said of his death, "The loss of Seamus Heaney is a loss to an international community of poetry that knows no boundaries. At Emory we feel this loss very personally as he was a member of our community. His visits, his poetry readings, his papers—his very being gave him a presence here that was meaningful and tangible."  

The collection of Heaney's papers will be the subject of a major exhibition in 2014, curated by Geraldine Higgins, associate professor of English and director of the Irish Studies Program at Emory. "Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens" will invite Heaney’s readers, friends and admirers to follow the trajectory of his work from the earth-bound "bog" poems of his early career to the lightness and airiness of “crediting marvels” in his later work.  

Higgins said Heaney had agreed to come for the February 2014 opening with his wife, Marie.

"Having listened to and loved his poetry since I was a teenager growing up in Northern Ireland, I was also lucky enough to hear him read again earlier this month at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo [Ireland]," Higgins said.  

"All of us who gathered to hear Seamus Heaney read at Emory in March are filled with sadness for this great loss, even as we are grateful to have witnessed one of his last, warmest and life-affirming readings," she said.

Heaney first gave a reading at Emory in 1981. In 1988, he delivered the inaugural lecture of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature and donated his lecture notes.  

Heaney’s friend, Ronald Schuchard, professor emeritus of English at Emory, called that donation "a turning point" in building MARBL's contemporary and Irish collections.   

During the 1980s Heaney came to Emory's British studies program several times, read his poems and conducted workshops. "He shaped many lives at Emory," said Schuchard. "I've received at least 25 emails this morning from former Emory students, some from classes as far back as 1980."  

Emory award-winning poet Kevin Young, Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing and curator of literary collections and the Danowski Poetry Library at Emory, was a student of Heaney's at Harvard. He said Heaney "was a great poet and a great person; his was a tremendous spirit that welcomed all into the country of poetry."
 
Young recalled Heaney's last visit to Emory in March of this year as "not only one of the best I have seen him give, but one of the most generous, heartfelt and downright heroic readings I have ever seen."

Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past." He was also the recipient of numerous other literary honors and awards.  

Adds Magee: "Those of us who got to know him will always be touched by the generosity of his spirit, the beauty of his language, and the power of his imagination. Students and scholars can continue to learn from that spirit through his papers that convey those qualities. But his presence will be profoundly missed."