Nobel Laureate Dazzles Sanders

Heaney reads unpublished works, as well as poems written for Harvard

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Miranda K. Lippold-johnson

Seamus Heaney, poet and translator of the most popular version of Beowulf, spoke in a packed Sanders Theater yesterday afternoon.

English professor Helen Vendler invoked the words of an English poet, Robert Graves, to describe the decidedly Irish Seamus Heaney, who read from his poems to a sold out audience at Sanders Theater yesterday.

“But nothing promised that is not performed,” Vendler quoted, inspired by her colleague’s tireless devotion to his students during his years as both the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and Professor of Poetry at Oxford. When Heaney, a Nobel laureate, took the stage, he described it as “one of the greatest moments in my life,” and although he promised the crowd nothing, he certainly performed.

In her introduction, Vendler called Heaney “a poet of Ireland and of the world,” which recalled a line from his Nobel lecture: “I credit poetry...both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.”

The first half of the hour-long reading consisted of Heaney’s older works. Two of the poems Heaney read he composed specifically for Harvard. The first, ‘Alphabets,’ he created for the 1984 Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony, and is one of his more famous poems. He also read ‘Villanelle,’ which he read for the first time in Tercentenary Theater in honor of Harvard’s 350th anniversary.

“I thought, ‘how can anyone possibly hear a poem over the loudspeakers?” he said. “So I decided to compose a villanelle. Just repeat repeat repeat.”

In the second half-hour, Heaney read several yet to be published poems, inspired by his translation of the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. He closed the afternoon with a reading of ‘Postscript,’ from his volume ‘The Spirit Level,’ published in 1996.

Heaney was born in County Derry in Northern Ireland, a place which continues to influence his poetry as both a setting and a mental state. Although he grew up on a farm and went to a country primary school, he won a scholarship to a Catholic grammar school in 1951, leaving the farm for good.

He began teaching at St. John’s College in Belfast in 1963, where he began publishing poetry.

Only one year after publishing his first volume of poetry, his second, “Death of a Naturalist,” received the E.C. Gregory award, given by the British Society of Authors to writers under 30, as well as the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, given to authors under 40.

His next book, “Door Into the Dark,” was published in 1969, and established Heaney as a major figure in the poetry world.

Heaney published steadily during the 1970s, including his acclaimed volume “North” in 1975 and accepted a post as visiting professor at Harvard in 1981. He was elected to the Boylston chair in 1984. The arrangement allowed him to spend only four months per year in Cambridge, and the rest at home in Dublin with his wife, Marie, a fellow writer.

From 1989 to 1994, Heaney flew back and forth between Cambridge and Oxford for his five-year professorship, and after took a leave of absence from Harvard. Then, in 1995, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel committee cited Heaney’s “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Many of the poems Heaney read at Sanders concerned the tension between opposed ideas: home and elsewhere, modernity and antiquity, trust and danger.

Before leaving the stage, he offered the assembled crowd a bit of wisdom.

“The secret to life, and to love, is getting started, keeping going, and then getting started again.”

—Staff writer Jilliam J. Goodman can be reached at