I went for the coffee and donuts, and traded some rhymes with the man signing books of poetry. I didn’t know who he was. He was Irish, I knew he had some poems about the problems Ireland has had over the years. I had some free time and heard about the literary reception; I’m literate, so I went.
I had a plate with an onion bagel as I walked up to the poet and said, “There once was a boy from Dundalk, who didn’t know quite how to walk….”
“It’s the Brits fault, think about it,” he replied with a finger in the air for emphasis as he looked at me directly. He was smiling. I like to play with words, and so did he.
I thought he enjoyed a little unvarnished wordplay among all the fawning fans asking for his scribble in the front of a book. I started again, “There once was a boy from Peru, who didn’t know quite what to do, he went to his mama, who showed him a Llama….and the rest of the rhyme’s up to you.”
He laughed. I can’t remember his reply to that. It was a sunny April day as we chatted in the school’s library with a couple of dozen other people around we were against a low book case. Coffee makes my brain race. Words spill out.
We talked about Lord Montbatten being killed by an IRA commando team in a targeted assassination in 1979. He talked about Mountbatten being a colonial master in India enforcing English rule, that he was not just a random fisherman with a title. Heaney spoke about Montbatten being the last British Viceroy of India, an unelected dictator from a foreign country I mentioned that Lord Montbatten had been the British official in charge of the allied occupation of Vietnam at the end of WW2, and Montbatten re-armed Japanese Imperial Army troops to put down a Vietnamese Trotskyist working class uprising in 1945 in Saigon.
“I didn’t know that,” he said to me as if a little piece of an important puzzle had been added
He told me that he ran a writing school for poetry during the summer in the West of Ireland, and that I might enjoy coming to the gathering. I was hoping in my head that I had enough money for gas to travel home in my car that night, not how to pay for a writers retreat across the ocean.
A faculty member joked with me a few days later, “you spoke more than he did.” I still didn’t know who the man was. I knew he was Irish, I knew he had written poems about the unhappy history of Ireland. I had his translation of Beowulf on my shelf at home. What a story.
Later I found out that this witty man had a Nobel Prize in Literature. Honestly, I am not impressed by that. President Obama has a Nobel Peace Prize. The people who vote on the winners are Norwegian elite and politicians from the government; they pick whatever is trendy with that clique. Still, good people do win for worthwhile efforts. Henry Kissinger got a Nobel Peace Prize. Imagine that.
The very next day I got an official notice from my department head that I was not being offered a job the next year and they had to warn me by that date. My wild days at free literary discussions would have to move on. I always knew I would end up passing poetry along as a teacher for a ‘hedge school.’
But over the years I really have thought about his answer to my words: “There once was a man from Dundalk who didn’t know quite how to walk….” Heaney’s answer: “It’s the Brits fault, think about it,” really has made me think about that answer. Did he mean the man couldn’t walk because he was hurt by the British soldiers? Did he mean that the long term British exploitation of Ireland lead to the Irelands population to be largely poor and unable to afford adequate health care?
Did he mean that Irish people blame everything on the British rather than taking responsibility for themselves? I have thought about that off and on over the dozen years since Heaney said them.
I still don’t have an answer to Seamus Heaney. But he’s on my shelf, in the library, and alive in my memory.