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Greetings! I’m a writer, editor, and teacher, and I enjoy connecting with readers and other writers. From 2017 to 2021, I served as Alabama's Poet Laureate. I call this blog and website "A Map of the World" because I think that, as writers, we each map the world through our own lives and imaginations. Welcome to my particular map! To get in touch, you can email me at forjenhorne@gmail.com or find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/for.jen.horne where I post a Mid-Week Poetry Break every Wednesday.

Friday, August 10, 2012

At the Hawk's Well

I’m back from a trip to Ireland, one I’ve made a number of times now, to attend the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo. I like a lot of Yeats’ poems and find him a fascinating poet to study, both for the changes he went through as a poet and the times he lived through and responded to in his work. The daily lectures help me think about the writing of poetry, and seminar discussions are heaven: ten people in a room gathered to talk and ponder and think, sparking off each other as we dig into poems and find what lies beneath the surface.

In addition to lectures and seminars, there are readings by some of the best contemporary poets in Ireland, among them, this year, Bernard O’Donoghue, Peter Fallon, Eamon Grennan, and the Nobel Prize–winning Seamus Heaney. In Sligo, I’ve heard Heaney read three times. The first was through the generosity of a poet I met there, Joan McBreen, who in a kind of fairy-godmother way obtained unobtainable tickets for me and my husband in 2004. We’d come up by bus from Galway to attend the launch of her poetry CD, The Long Light on the Land. We had no way home that night—the last bus would leave before the reading ended—but we decided to stay, regardless, and trust to luck for what happened next. What happened next was that her sister, who lived not too far from Galway, drove us home, and not just to her town for a taxi, but to our doorstep. I’ll never forget all that generosity.

The second time was in 2009, at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Yeats School; I got a copy of The Spirit Level signed then, having picked it up in the Winding Stair bookstore in Dublin thinking I’d like to have a book to get signed after the reading.

This summer my husband was with me again, and the Hawk’s Well Theatre in Sligo was packed full. Among the poems Heaney read were “In the Attic,” a favorite of mine since I read it in the New Yorker a few years ago, “Postscript,” “The Railway Children,” “Two Lorries,” and poems about his mother from the “Clearances” sequence.

The affection for him coming from the audience was something you could feel, something he could feel, surely. At the end of the reading, he joked, “I probably should’ve stopped you clapping, but it seemed so natural.” I’d been telling someone the day before one of my favorite poetry stories, about Pasternak reading to a packed house in Russia, reciting all of his poems from memory, and how when he’d paused in the middle of one, losing a line, the words had come up to him from the audience, all of whom knew his poems by heart. It felt like that, there in the Hawk’s Well.

As he’d done the first time I heard him read in Sligo, Heaney said he didn’t think he’d read “Digging,” perhaps his most famous poem. A great groan went up from the audience, many of them local people, who clearly wanted this greatest hit. After another couple of poems, he said that perhaps he could do “Digging,” and paused to gather it into his mind.

He began with the opening words, “Between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests; snug as a gun,” continuing on with that amazing, magical sleight-of-hand he has that moves effortlessly between time periods, to the part of the poem where he remembers his grandfather cutting turf. “Once I . . .” he began, and paused. “Once I . . .”—and I found myself in a Pasternak moment, shouting “carried him milk”! Several others called out the line as well. I think for some members of the audience it was distressing to see the great poet not reciting his own poem perfectly, but for me it was a moment of just being human, which is what we love Heaney’s poetry for anyway, opening us up to our full humanity. He continued, “Once I carried him milk in a bottle / Corked sloppily with paper” and through to the end.

After the reading he agreed to sign books, and I’m told he kept on for an hour and a half before walking out into the cool, damp, peat-smelling Sligo night.

As we left the theatre, my mind was drifting back to another night, a wet and windy night in Oxford, England, where I was on a junior-year study abroad program in 1980-81. I had a brown three-speed Raleigh bicycle that I rode everywhere. It had a light that ran off the movement of the tires, and I’d bought pre-Velcro pants clips, metal with a black plastic covering, to keep my pants legs from getting caught in the chain. Heaney was reading, and I knew enough about poetry then to know I’d better get myself to it, rain or not, tired or not, several miles away or not. He read in a theatre-like classroom with rows of seats spreading upwards. I remember fluorescent lights, a not-full house, and then the way he commanded the room, bringing his energy to bear to captivate us all for an hour. That was the first time I heard “Digging,” before he had read it so many more times he felt perhaps that was enough. I remember leaving the reading alone, exhilarated, the rain having stopped, streetlights shining on wet leaves and dark pavement. I wanted to ride and ride and ride, and not to go to sleep that night, just to keep feeling so alive.


  1. Jennifer, what a lovely essay of your experience in Ireland this summer, and most especially your several experiences with Heaney! Isn't it fun to be young and in love with life and with poetry and with most poets in general--lol? (Je me souviens.)

    I so enjoyed seeing Heaney's "humanity" in that moment of his forgetfulness. Thank you for that very precise description of how it came about. I can't recite anything I've written and have always been in complete awe of those who do.

    As much as I hate flying these days, you've made me want to go to Ireland!

    1. Thank you, Kathleen! I appreciate your comments. And that Atlanta-Dublin flight isn't bad at all . . . .


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