Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again
3 MIN READ
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.
Seamus Heaney: ‘The Rain Stick’
Listen now again
It’s not how you picture a Nobel prize winner delivering his collection to a national institution.
‘In 2011,’ says Katherine McSharry, Head of Outreach at National Library of Ireland and the Project Director of ‘Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again’ the first exhibition to take place in the new Bank of Ireland Culture and Heritage Centre, ‘Seamus Heaney packed up some boxes in his home in Sandymount – he wrote in the attic of the house – took them out to the car with his son Michael, drove the car to the National Library, and carried the boxes out of the car and up the stairs, with the help of Library staff, and that’s how they became part of the National Collection.’
Pages, notebooks, backs of envelopes
Katherine has been working with the curator of the exhibition, Professor Geraldine Higgins, Director of Irish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, USA.
For two years, Geraldine had, in Katherine’s words, the ‘terrible and amazing’ job’ of going through Seamus Heaney’s archive of pages, notebooks and backs of envelopes (the contents of those boxes that he drove to the National Library) to decide what would go into the exhibition and what wouldn’t.
Telling the story
‘You could tell the story in many ways,’ Katherine explains.
‘For some people, one way in will be the story of his childhood in rural Ireland because that’s their experience.
For some , it will be a line of poetry that speaks to them at that moment.
For others, it will knowing that he was a Nobel laureate and wanting to know more about him as a person.’
Ordinary to extraordinary
The theme of the exhibition is transformation.
‘About the movement from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
And these are trajectories that you see in Seamus Heaney’s poetry which is rooted in the everyday and is very readable,’ Katherine says. ‘So, even for somebody who hasn’t encountered his poetry before, they can come in and read ‘Digging’ and immediately understand it.’
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Seeing things anew
The title of the exhibition Seamus Heaney: ‘Listen Now Again’ is taken from his poem ‘The Rainstick’.
A rainstick is a cactus tube with dry grit or grain in it which, when you turn it, makes a sound like rain.
‘The poem itself is very playful in its use of language describing rain,’ Katherine explains ‘but it is also prompts you to take another look at ordinary things and to turn and twist them in different ways to see them anew.’
‘You can touch stuff’
‘The exhibition will be very intimate and tactile in a way that you might not expect,’ Katherine reveals.
‘You can touch stuff (although not Seamus Heaney’s notebooks and drafts, of course).
We will have sods of hand cut turf from the bog in County Clare which a lot of people may not have seen before let alone touched it.
There will be a rainstick that you can twist and turn to hear the sound of rain.
There will be a chalkboard where you can leave a message on the way out.
And there are lots of places where there will be audio and people can pick up a headset and listen.’
Two filing cabinets with a board on top
The Heaney’s have also very kindly loaned some family objects to the exhibition which visitors will be able to see.
One of them is the desk, from the attic in Sandymount, that Seamus Heaney wrote at.
‘When you think of a desk for a writer as famous as Seamus Heaney,’ Katherine says, ‘you may think of a walnut, roll-top desk with ornate carving but he actually wrote at a desk made out of two filing cabinets with a board placed on the top of them.’
A working space not a ‘designer bolthole’
Seamus Heaney talks about his desk in ‘Stepping Stones’.
His friend asks him why he’s satisfied with a desk made out of filing cabinets and a board and he says it’s partly because he had to get it up a narrow attic stairs but it is also because he has a superstitious fear of making a designer study, a film set rather than a bolt-hole.
He didn’t want to become a performance of himself.
Watching Seamus create a poem
‘One of the things we wanted to do,’ Katherine explains, ‘was to show a poem being created.
If you had an expert standing beside you, they could say ‘look what’s happening here’.
We can’t do that for every visitor so what we’ve done is put together an animation where you can watch a poem being written and rewritten over several drafts.
You hear the scratching of the pen and the typing of the typewriter and in the end you hear Seamus Heaney himself reading out the final version.
My own personal favourite poem?
I ask Katherine what her favourite Seamus Heaney poem is.
‘I think that changes from day to day,’ she says. ‘I love the ending to ‘Postscript’, which he writes after a visit to County Clare, where he talks about driving along the coastline there saying ‘and catch the heart off guard and blow it open’.
It’s part of what we’re hoping to capture here.
There’s a poem called ‘Mother of the groom’ which I love.
It’s my Dad’s favourite poem and that’s part of the reason I enjoy it.
Hands in her voided lap,
she hears a daughter welcomed.
Seamus Heaney: ‘Mother of the groom’
‘Take a line or two of poetry’
What would Katherine like for visitors to take away from the exhibition?
‘College Green is incredibly busy and bustling.
When visitors come in here from the noisy street, I would like them to experience a moment of transformation in the midst of a busy life.
I would love for people to go away with a sense of Seamus Heaney as a man, his family and story.
And I would love for them to take a line or two of poetry.
There’s a line of Seamus Heaney for everybody and I would like people to find that line and take it with them.’
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Seamus Heaney: ‘Postscript’
Find out more
The exhibition is open at The Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre from 10am-4pm, Monday to Saturday, and is free to the public. More information here.
Images courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.
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