Last night, I had the opportunity to hear Seamus Heaney speak at the Rubloff Auditorium in the beautiful Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. I have been a fan for a long time. Heaney’s poem “Digging” (which I quote in the post title) was one of the first poems I read that really impacted me in terms of its use of sound and rhyme in a way that was both organic and formal. His reading included many of his well-known pieces – “Digging,” “Sunlight”(which he referred to as a Dutch interior wanting to be a Vermeer), “Casualty,” “A Sofa in the 40s,” and “Postscript.” His introductions to the poems were brief but meaningful in the sense that they gave a bit of context without explaining the piece. His brogue was charming and his reading style, although not dramatic or theatrical, seemed to enliven the rhythms of his written words quite well. I am happy to have finally heard a poet that I have long admired, and I know that the reading will take me back to his poems again.
After the reading, there was a short question and answer session. Best moment of come-uppance? A long-winded, esoteric, greedy questioner after “just one more follow up” asking “How do you maintain such economy of language and still have such image clarity in so many poems?” received Heaney’s answer :”Sheer bloody genius.” Cringe-worthy moment? After a VERY clear, emphatic statement in the welcome that Mr. Heaney would not be autographing that evening, a grad student walked up to the mic in front of the audience of at least 200-300 people and asked him to make an exception and sign a photo. Awkward pause. Handler from the Poetry Foundation stepping up to say, “I think we have time for one more question.” Best question moment of the night? A girl of about 13 asking if he feels that his poems have lives of their own. Some of my favorite bits of wisdom gleaned from the question/answer period are below (paraphrased the best I can from my chicken-scratch notes):
A poem is a bodily act, more musculature than shape. It should be a moving thing.
Your poems are different from you. If they are good, the “I’ in the poem is no longer me but something greater than me. (This in response to the middle-school girl.)
You write because you want to write, basically. You’re always writing for the ideal reader in your head who revises for you.
That last comment was the one from the night that stuck with me the most. To view the act of revision as the “ideal reader” in your head who is pushing you to make the poem better is one that I think will serve me well. Also, the idea of the poem as a flexible, moving musculature was something I want to think about more deeply. What do you think of these ideas?