Seamus Heaney

by Richard Brookhiser

I told this story in my “City Desk” in NR, but I must tell it again in honor of the deceased.

Elizabeth Altham was one of WFB’s later amanuenses, and has taught for many years at a small but rigorous Catholic school in the midwest. Sometime in the ’00s, she wrote to say that her students were reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. (It is good; his preface is a very good introduction to the poem.) Did I know how they could correspond with him?

Folk in the heartland seem to think that a New Yorker knows everyone, or at least knows someone who does. (New Yorkers encourage this belief.) But it happened that I did know someone who knew Heaney — Terry Golway, once my managing editor at the New York Observer. (Stereotype alert: He met Heaney in a bar in Dublin.) I wrote Terry, who graciously supplied his contact info, and Liz took it from there. Heaney answered her students’ queries informatively and with pleasure.

Every year Joseph Brodsky wrote a poem at Christmas time, and I read his Nativity Poems every year. Heaney translated one of them, “Flight Into Egypt (2).” Here is a stanza:

Mary prays; the fire soughs;
Joseph frowns into the blaze.
Too small to be fit to do a thing
but sleep, the infant is just sleeping.


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