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Citing the critical link between culture and linguistic voice in poetic translations, Emerson Visiting Poet and 1995 Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney delivered a lecture entitled "Fretwork: On Translating Beowulf" last night to a full house in the Science Center.
Sponsored by the Department of English and American Literature and Language and the Woodberry Poetry Room, the lecture focused on the motivation and methods of Heaney's current work-in-progress, a translation of the Old English literary behemoth.
Heaney said that the "abiding power of the work itself" played a role in his decision to author a new interpretation of the 3,000-plus line text.
"It gave me great pleasure to translate Beowulf [with] Ulster linguistic finger prints on it," the Irish poet added.
Heaney returned throughout his talk to the idea that a poet's linguistic voice is inextricably linked to his or her cultural background.
"Diction and identity and history and religion and culture are all intimately bound up," Heaney said. "I am poetically more sure-footed with [idiomatic] words as the paving of my text."
Indeed, it was as much for his words of literary and poetic wisdom as to hear selections from his Beowulf that drew such a large audience to Heaney's lecture, the first in a series of six by the poet which will span the month of October.
Jerome L. Martin'01 said he attended the lecture because of his high esteem for Heaney's work in general.
"I think he's pretty much one of the greatest living poets," Martin said. "In fact, he's one of the reasons I chose Harvard over other [colleges]."
Kristina Badalian, who visited Harvard for the weekend, was scheduled to fly back to the University of California at San Diego, where she is a student. Instead, she said she postponed her flight in order to hear Heaney speak.
Heaney, who began teaching at Harvard as a visiting professor in 1981 and resigned in 1996 from his position as Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory, is one of the most popular poets writing in English today.
His Nobel citation in literature lauds him "for an authorship filled with lyrical beauty and ethical depth which brings out the miracles of ordinary day and the living past."
Heaney's series of talks continues today with "Talking Shop," at 5:30 p.m. in Emerson 105. According to organizers of the event, the audience will be given the opportunity to participate in a discussion on a literary topic of Heaney's choosing.
"Talking Shop" will also take place on the following Wednesdays in October at the same time. The Oct. 21 discussion will again be held in Emerson 105. The Oct. 28 talk will be in Science Center D.
On Oct. 20, Heaney will present "Opening the Word-Hoard: Readings from Beowulf" at 8 p.m. in Science Center C.
On Oct. 27, at 8 p.m. in Science Center C, Heaney will commemorate the publication of his new book of collected poems, Opened Ground, with readings from that work.
Porter University Professor Helen H. Vendler is also scheduled to deliver a lecture called "Seamus Heaney's 'Mycenae Lookout': The Use of Tradition" in the Thompson Parlor of the Barker Center on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m.
Vendler, who is currently teaching a course titled "The Poetry of Seamus Heaney," said of his work, "It confronts both personal and public affairs with rare honesty and a rare gift."
All talks are free and open to the public.
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