Monday 29 August 2016

Sarah Carey: I have Bill Clinton to thank for turning me on to Seamus Heaney

Published 04/09/2013 | 15:43

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney

This is my Seamus Heaney story, though it's really a Bill Clinton story. Three years ago, I swung a ticket to a dinner in UCD with Bill Clinton and 2,000 other people.

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Heaney was there too, though I didn't see him as I was in a corner far, far away from the dignitaries. Clinton's speech was amazing. At one point, and without notes, he created a link between Heaney's epic poem The Cure At Troy, WB Yeats' Easter 1916 and Nelson Mandela.


His passion for Heaney's work was both moving and deeply shaming. I was accustomed to hearing Heaney quoted, but I'd never actually sat down and read one of his poems.

I resolved to correct my ignorant ways and promptly bought a copy of The Cure At Troy.

I started it, but didn't get far. Poetry requires time and reflection that are mostly absent from my life. Between a husband, children and working from home, I rarely sit for an hour and read quietly.

To be honest, when I do have time to sit, I love watching a hospital drama on television to help me switch off.

People have given me poetry books as gifts, but I've often found them difficult to understand. However, I've gone to poetry readings, and that's completely different.

I think poems aren't meant to be read in a book. They only come alive and mean something when they are read aloud; preferably by the poet themselves.

So, when I was offered a one-hour show on Newstalk on Saturday mornings I suggested that we read a poem at the start of each programme. We'd offer no high falutin' analysis -- just read them. I thought that if poetry wasn't consigned to an arts programme, more people might listen and enjoy it.

We picked poems that were short and not too complicated. No classical references or over-worked allusions. Most of it was modern and my favourites included Philip Larkin, John Updike and Heaney of course.

I loved the item but to be honest, it didn't get a great reaction. In two years, we got one positive review in the papers, which was nice. But most people thought it was quirky, and not in a good way. A bit odd. Why are you doing this?

When the show moved to 1pm, I was persuaded that whatever about the morning when people might be feeling a little quiet and reflective, lunchtime was the wrong time to have poetry. One friend joked to me: "Oh you should have poetry on the radio. Just not when anyone is listening."


For me it exposed the gap between the lavish praise the Irish establishment heaps on itself for being home to so many Nobel Prize laureates and the daily cultural life of most people.

While I was embarrassed about my failure to familiarise myself with poetry, I wondered if, for once, I was normal. Once school is finished, is poetry a feature of Irish people's cultural lives at all? Are most people really sitting at home at night marvelling at the great works of our famous poets, or at best, is it something we reserve for funerals or occasional quotes in speeches?

We go on a lot about pub culture, but were you ever in a pub when someone stood up and read some poems? Even in the days before the ubiquitous television was on in the corner showing yet another wretched match, I don't recall anyone spontaneously declaiming a sonnet or two. The only person I ever heard recite lines at appropriate moments was my mother.

Since Heaney died, several people mentioned to me that the coverage had motivated them to seek out his work and give it a try. He was clearly both a great man and a great talent. I'm going to join them and switch off the telly, and take out The Cure At Troy once more.


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