When Hope and History Rhyme

Since attending Margaret Atwood’s Ellman Lecture series the fall of my freshman year, my initial reaction during readings given by my idolized literary figures always involves a jolting confirmation of their own reality: “He/she looks exactly like their picture!”  Margaret Atwood’s sassy, wry grin and perpetually questioning eyebrows, Billy Collins’ mushroom cloud of Einstein locks, Seamus Heaney’s contemplative shadow of a smile all there in flesh incarnate. After years of reading, relating to, and internalizing their work, they’ve become disembodied, prophetic voices proclaiming my own personal and spiritual truths in divinely articulate ways. Even the reprinted photographs which accompany brief biographies on book flaps (the cocked heads, knowing smiles, and chins resting snuggly in palms) express an inherent wisdom, once-removed from that of mere mortals. It’s always a shock to discover that they inhabit a three-dimensional world beyond the written word and to notice that their hands shake.

Of course, this mythologized perception was established before I heard Margaret Atwood chortle as my friend Ashley handed her a slip of paper with her own manifesto “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” scrawled upon it or realized that images such as this one existed within the public domain, just a Google search away:

My poet crush is official now.

After unconsciously hoping to bump into Seamus on the geographically incoherent streets of Dublin or in abandoned monasteries all summer, after browsing shelf upon shelf of signed poetry volumes with a detached longing for the unattainable (90 Euros apiece- I kind of needed to eat occasionally), the planets and MARBL aligned and I was finally bestowed the privilege of glimpsing Heaney in person.

Heaney’s poetry unites topics of historical import and the forgotten narratives of daily life with humor, simplicity, tragedy, and spiritual transcendence. It truly “catches the heart off guard and blows it open,” so that it’s virtually impossible to transition back to the everyday concerns of filling my car Harvey’s empty gas tank and writing reflections on my own choreography after absorbing an hour and a half of his poetry. You can’t help but leave a little drunk on Heaney’s strong distillation of life. I, for one, received a few odd looks from our Rise n’ Dine server due to my childish look of beaming joy, disproportionate even to that which excellent brunch evokes.

One of the most prolific contemporary poets, Seamus Heaney’s work spans five decades. I’m tempted to suggest that you drop everything and read it ALL, but I don’t want to be responsible for your mind exploding from the sheer overwhelming beauty and power that awaits within his work. So pace yourself, give yourself new things to discover, leave things to look forward to tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with my top ten favorite Heaney-isms and the names of their respective poems. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve removed the line breaks:

“Call the miracle self-healing: The utter self-revealing double-take of feeling. If there’s fire on the mountain or lightning and storm and a god speaks from the sky that means someone is hearing the outcry and birth-cry of new life at its term” ~The Cure at Troy

“Walk on air against your better judgment.” ~The Gravel Walks

“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch  and slap of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge through living roots awaken in my head. But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.” ~Digging

“Now to pry into roots, to finger slime, to stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” ~Personal Helicon

“History says, Don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal-wave of justice can rise up , and hope and history rhyme.” ~The Cure at Troy

“A vacuum of need collapsed each hunting heart but tremulously we held apart, preserved classic decorum, deployed our talk with art. Our juvenilia had taught us both to wait, not to publish feeling and regret it all too late- Mushroom loves already had puffed and burst in hate.” ~Twice Shy

“The wintry haw is burning out of season, crab of the thorn, a small light for small people, wanting no more from them but that they keep the wick of self-respect from dying out, not having to blind them with illumination.” ~The Haw Lantern

“No treaty I foresee will salve completely your tracked and stretchmarked body, the big pain that leaves you raw, like opened ground, again” ~Act of Union

“Did sea define the land or the land the sea? Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision. Sea broke on land to new identity.” ~Lovers on Aran

“You saw for yourselves a while ago, what happened to the bird when his throat went dry. So my friends and neighbors, let it flow! We’ll be stood no rounds in eternity.” ~Translation of The Yellow Bittern


2 responses to “When Hope and History Rhyme

  1. You get lectures from Margaret Atwood?! She’s coming to a bookshop near me in England in August to do a talk about the last in the Oryx and Crake trilogy, but this definitely outdoes that.

    • It was a special series of lectures at Emory, the Ellman Lectures of Literature, which happen once every few years and are open to the entire student body. That’s so exciting! I wish I could be there… Definitely go and let me know how it is, so I can live vicariously through you!

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