Without going into the two books I purchased and got signed (Matter of Fact by Eamon Grennan and Selected Poems by Bernard O’Donoghue), I’ll just write about my impressions of the Monday night’s event.
Originally, Heaney himself was scheduled to appears. But, of course, he died.
So, with some help from the Irish embassy, a collection of three prominent Irish poets (Paula Meehan and the two aforementioned poets whose books I purchased) and two American (Frank Bidart and Jane Hirschfield).
I feel like I have Hirschfield’s collection, After, somewhere in my library but didn’t find it nor, consequently, bring it for a signature. Which is okay. Because one of my takeaways from the evening is that she rubs me the wrong. It’s entirely personal. I feel like that if I were younger (let’s say, late teens or early twenties), I would gladly be here willing disciple and nurture a secret crush on her. At this point in my life, she strikes me as a name dropping caricature of the poet as spiritual shaman. The outfit, the attitude… I feel like she is villain in made for Christian television movie, where the young girl is almost led astray by the wild and probably atheist poet-professor, but is saved by… I don’t know, maybe a pastor the youthful heroine used to think boring and staid or a wise old gardener who never finished college. Something like that. She also dropped a lot of names and locations that made her seem very cool. Did you know that she hung out with Heaney in Rome, at the American school? After he left the boring others behind, he and and his wife drank wine and ate awesome Italian things with Hirschfield in an apartment, probably overlooking somewhere romantic and historical. Having attended the lecture, variations on this incident were drilled into my head. Repeatedly. But, it has to be said and cannot be ignored: Jane Hirschfield is a very, very, very good poet. Not completely my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize quality when I see it (or hear it).
Bidart, who is a poet I greatly admire, was the most interesting speaker, because he actually took the time to not to just read his own poetry (in fact, he read very little of his own), but to almost give a lecture on a particular aspect of Heaney’s oeuvre, namely, political poetry in Heaney’s canon. Bidart also had the longest line of people looking for autographs, which made me feel bad, so I was happy that I went for some of the lesser known poets.
Paula Meehan has one of those great reading voices that seem tailor made for poetry. I’m not sure how if I’d buy a collection of her poetry (I didn’t that night), but I would definitely buy an album of her reading her poetry. She spoke melodically and at length about Heaney’s place in Ireland’s history, literary or otherwise. More than any other poet, she gave a feel for Heaney as a larger than life figure.
Eamon Grennan, besides having a wondrous, Amish style beard, spoke movingly about Heaney’s poetic influence on his work (which is great – I’ll write more about it at a later date, I’m sure).
Finally, Bernard O’Donoghue. A nervous speaker, but also the most knowledgeable about Heaney (as one might expect from someone who has written a book about Heaney’s poetry). He is probably the one I would have most enjoyed hearing more from (though I wish, in the time that he did have, he had taken a page from Bidart’s approach). Again, I’ll write about the book I bought from him later.
At the signing period, I was waiting in line, before realizing that everyone was waiting for Bidart, so I just skipped around and got to chat with both Grennan and O’Donoghue. Of course, one also can’t help but feel bad for the non-superstar poets (at least, non-superstars to the Folger attending, poetry reading public of the DC metropolitan area) and I hope more folks made their way over to the other parts of the table, not being bum rushed by Bidart aficionados.