28 February, 2011Issue 15.4EssaysLiteraturePoetry

Email This Article Print This Article

Eat Your Good Lamb

Daniel Picker

This past August, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Justin Kaplan asked me, “What was it like to study with Seamus Heaney?” I fell silent for a bit, just as I often did around Heaney. Even now, it remains a difficult question to answer.

I first met Seamus Heaney in January in Warren House, the graduate English office at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was about 22 years old.

I recall hearing him speak to the gathered crowd of students with his distinctive Irish accent. “I will be teaching two poetry writing classes: RBR and SBR. If you are interested, you should submit a manuscript of poems.” I very clearly recall first hearing him say, “RBR and SBR” (the course identification codes). With his accent, those letters sounded sort of thick and rubbery. He probably specified how many poems we should submit, perhaps around five.

In a brief letter of introduction I included with my poems, I’m sure I mentioned that, “I met with William Alfred, and he had read my poems.” Alfred suggested I mention his name in my letter. I had told Alfred in one of our informal conversations in his parlor at his house on Athens Street, “My mother’s maiden name is Haney.”

Alfred said, “Put that in your letter to Heaney, too.”

I gained a seat in one of Heaney’s two classes, “The Practice of Poetry”. In class Heaney almost always wore a jacket and tie, and that term he often wore a gray, tweed jacket. He put on a cockney accent on one occasion, and this over his Irish accent produced the intended comical result. It seemed everyone was glad to be there.

Heaney would introduce us to poets like Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert, with the assumption that this was the contemporary poetry he most admired. Although now I cannot recall exactly which eastern European poets and poems Seamus Heaney presented, I do vividly recall the Rilke poems he shared with the class: “The Panther”, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, and the first of the “Sonnets to Orpheus”, which mentions a “tree growing in the ear.”

He helped us appreciate these poems’ distinctive and remarkable qualities. What he pointed out in these poems, which helped me develop and refine my own poetic practice, was that power lay in what was not there; the power was present in absence, in what was missing.

At the time, I shared with Heaney a poem I had written that was inspired by Rilke, which concluded: “though his heart was a wounded animal.” The poem described a bleak, snow–covered landscape, a scene of emotional desolation. But Heaney thought “animal” too strong, and not quite right; he suggested “creature”.

Heaney was not a small man; he had a certain physical stature and seemed strong and agile. I recall once inadvertently dropping something, perhaps a pen on the floor as we stood conversing in Warren House, and he swooped down to pick it up very quickly, as if to say, “I’m still quicker than you are even though you are half my age.”

His hair was longish and grayish and seemed sort of unruly. I never thought of his connection to the counter-culture or hippie movement of the 1960s or 1970s, but perhaps his hairstyle was connected to that generation. He was somewhat stocky, though not quite burly.

He seemed to appreciate his students’ poems; I recall Antonia’s beautiful poem describing a single sculler rowing on the Charles River. Another classmate, a young man, shared a fine poem which described another more turbulent river, and I complimented the student’s poem by relating it to the work of Dylan Thomas. Heaney didn’t quite assent, and noted that Dylan Thomas’s work was often too overstated. With my poems he made specific suggestions on cutting parts of lines. He wasn’t always specific, but I did gain a sense that he felt that I would unnecessarily prolong my poems. The original version of “Sky Dark, Small Stars”, for instance, originally ended: “… and I am obviously alone.” He found this last bit superfluous, and he was correct.

Years later, in the winter of 1995-96, when I was working for Princeton University, I picked up the New York Times on the table and read on the front page that Heaney had won the Nobel Prize in literature. This event inspired me to write about one of my office visits with Heaney when he suggested revising my poem “Moss Hollow”. Heaney wrote on my poem by drawing a sort of rectangle around the poem’s middle section, showing me the lines to revise. I still recall that office visit upstairs in a tall, Victorian house on Prescott Street, which was then the undergraduate English office. Up in the eaves, on the third floor, I remember the warm light of a lamp, and Heaney noting a “broken line” in my poem. On that same meeting Heaney autographed my paperback copy of his book Field Work, signing in it: “For Daniel Picker Seamus Heaney Slainte!”

During that spring term, I met Heaney at a small gathering at the Grolier Bookshop, and as he stood on the stone steps outside by the door on that bright afternoon, he flicked ashes from his Merit cigarette onto the ground and joked, “Heaney was here.”

The spring term culminated with a reading Heaney gave; in fact, it was a dual reading with James Merrill. The auditorium was packed and Heaney read first, but briefly; he deferred to Merrill, although most were there to hear him.

During the term, Heaney and I sometimes ate dinner in Adams House together with other students and perhaps I was too in awe of him. He reminded me once to: “Eat your good lamb”, as I perhaps listened too closely to the conversation and let my dinner get cold. So, I have described what it was like to study with Seamus Heaney. But perhaps my poem “Blackbird” for S.H. says it even better:

Sitting beside there then you matched
your tweed sleeve to mine, yours thatched
black and white hatched grey, mine green –
blue and black. You asked, “What are you reading?”
“Patrick Kavanagh,” I said before your reciting:
“Clay is the word and clay is the flesh
where the potato – gatherers like mechanised
scarecrows move . . .” I fell silent after
“The Great Hunger.” Then back to my poem
“Moss Hollow”: “That grey graveled muddy
road I walked down . . . past gurgling gutter
streams of the soft shoulders.” Then at
the heart you boxed in that broken line
and proffered, “the flint wing of a blackbird.”

During that same office meeting I mentioned Edward Thomas and his verse; Edna Longley had recently delivered a fine lecture at Harvard on the friendship between Robert Frost and Thomas as seen in comparative poems written of the time when Frost lived in England before Thomas was killed in World War I. Thomas may have been Frost’s greatest writer friend. Heaney noted the “sense of isolation” in my work and in Edward Thomas’s also.

I recall last seeing Seamus in Warren House, and shaking hands and saying, “Good-bye”, and “It was nice meeting you”, and “I enjoyed your class.” “God Bless”, he said.

Daniel Picker studied English Literature at Lincoln College, Oxford. His work has appeared in the Harvard Review and elsewhere.