Happy Birthday to two Great Irish Writers

It is said that when one sees a great production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot that they should never see a performance again.  I agree.  In the Spring of 2004 I saw a brilliant performance of the masterpiece at the Gate Theatre in Parnell Square, Dublin.  Unfortunately I cannot recall the cast, nor do I have in front of me the old moleskin that I remember filling with accolades after emerging from the theatre, but I can admit that it was perhaps the most visceral theatrical sitting I’ve ever undergone—the actors became the characters before even entering the stage, the tension and height of the space each character occupied kept every onlooker hooked into the reality that Beckett so consistently draws from.

At the time I was enrolled in the Samuel Beckett School of Drama at Trinity College Dublin.  Although I never took a course in the department, opting instead to take philosophy and literature courses, something about the proximity of Beckett’s ghost, his voice sweep, made the occurrence that much more meaningful, more bare and stripping.  I remember leaving the theatre and raising several pints.  I also remember returning to my flat, creeping into the corner of my bed with the window overlooking a very dingy swerve of the Liffey, and picking up Beckett’s Trilogy:  Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnamable.  It didn’t take long before I was plunged into the quick-kipped and electrically dense minutiae of the text, taking breaks every sentence to ponder how insanely entrancing it was for such seemingly sparse writing to rampage my cortex. Ever since this experience I have done everything possible to take down Beckett in the full.  The recent publication of some of his shorter poems has only solidified his place as one of the most concise and intensely devoted writers to date.  His vernacular treads the mind-foot, traverses the unknown willingly and successfully, makes writing a tiny but forceful cabin in the possible vacationland all writers seek.  So, today I celebrate his birthday and upon reminding myself that there is much more to read want to remind others to read something, anything, by dear Samuel.

It is fitting that Beckett shares a birthday with another Irish writer of an already acknowledge placard in the halls of the pantheon of poetry and prose, one Seamus Heaney.  While avoiding theatre courses at Trinity I was fortunately able to take a year-long course in Irish poetry which took a long landing in the trenches of Heaney’s work.  By long landing I mean that we read everything he’s published and with much time spent on it all.  Heaney needs to be read closely.  He does not demand that his work be read as such, but it becomes more important to map it out in a way that can visibly string its wonders into a place for conversation.  Heaney had already won the Nobel Prize for literature ten years prior, so it is needless to say that we had a plethora of work to discuss.  The fact that he was still working on translations and writing new material during our studying made the setting one of vital significance, as if we were living with the texts in that they too were still thriving in a space undiscussed but clearly relevant.

After we had spent a chunk of time looking at Heaney I went to hear Stephen Greenblatt give a critical reading on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the character of Stephen Dedalus in the work of James Joyce, particularly Ulysses.  Greenblatt has written a lot about the subject of Hamlet, something I’d urge many to read, specifically the piece Hamlet in Purgatory.  Aside from the speech being remarkable I noticed that Heaney was sitting up front, adorned in a spotless tuxedo, white hair rolled back in a spleen of glint.  I remember being jittery, thinking about how I was finally becoming a writer and that the first poem that really hit me was one of Heaney’s, the lines of which I had carried around in my head for years, having memorized them but the title had long left me and since I had heard the poem read while visiting a college campus as a senior in high school I had no clue where to search.  The strange part was that I was under the impression that I had read everything Heaney wrote within the last year so why could I not find the poem in my head?  After Greenblatt wrapped up his paper I noticed a few people flock to Heaney for autographs.  Then, as he left and went into a smaller room I followed him in.  He glanced at me and for some reason I noticed that I had put a hand on his shoulder, as if I was guiding him outside of a door.

“Mr.Heaney,” I said, “I don’t mean to take up much of your time but I wanted to ask you something…you see, I’ve had this poem of yours that I’ve kept in my head for years but that for the life of me I cannot locate in your published work.”

“I see.  Well, how does it go?”

At this moment I was well aware that I had already taken a risk in not only confronting an idol at the time but also doing so in a manner that to many might seem upfront.  For a second I cleared my throat, then proceeded to recite Seamus Heaney’s poem to Seamus Heaney.  He sat there for a moment, betwixt what was surely estranged wonder and factual stance, and said “Well I can see why you haven’t found that poem for it is out of print.  It’s from the “Gravel Walks.”

I responded with a release of both joy—he hadn’t found me an idiot for not finding the poem—and release—I now knew where to find something I’d carried around with me as somewhat of a mantra for years.  After this brief interchange I thanked Heaney and he put his hand on my shoulder and said “no, thank you.”  Needless to say, I celebrate the man’s birthday every year.  Here are the lines that I had in my head from the poem:

…walk on air against your better judgment
Establishing yourself somewhere in between
Those solid batches mixed with grey cement
And a tune called ‘The Gravel Walks’ that conjures green.

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