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Tuesday, October 25, 2011
92Y Guest Blog: Camille Rankine On Seamus Heaney

Photo Credit: Nancy Crampton

David Orr argued in The New York Times recently that poetry performances “give us the possibility that is the poem itself.” To quote Paul Muldoon, readings are “an act of creativity and criticism combined.”

Readings allow for the poet and audience to join together in the act of meaning-making.

With this in mind, the Unterberg Poetry Center has asked some contemporary poets to report on our poetry evenings this year. First up is Camille Rankine, author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire and recipient of a 2010 “Discovery"/Boston Review Poetry Prize. She was featured as an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet and the April 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is Manager of External Relations and National Programs at Cave Canem Foundation.

Rankine’s assessment of Seamus Heaney’s reading (video excerpt here) on September 26 follows:

I confess: I’ve always felt a bit distant from the poetry of Seamus Heaney. He is one of those poets I pretend to be more familiar with than I actually am. He is also one of those poets I keep meaning to read more of. So when I was invited to attend his reading to open the Poetry Center’s 73rd season, I accepted with interest. Here was a chance to see what lay beyond Death of a Naturalist.

Heaney’s demeanor, despite his seventy-odd years and his Nobel Prize, was boyish and unassuming. He cracked jokes. He stumbled over the maddeningly similar terms “epitaph,” “epigraph” and “epilogue.” A sense of humor? Grammatical blunders? Maybe, I thought, borrowing the tried-and-true logic of Us Weekly, Seamus Heaney was just like me. As he went on to read poems dotted with hen houses, harvest bows, cattle, lorries, a stick of keel, I thought again: maybe not.

There aren’t many shared traits between my landscape and that of Seamus Heaney: he grew up in rural Ireland in the mid-twentieth century; I was raised in the 80s and 90s between suburbs of Portland, Oregon and the island of Jamaica.  And Heaney’s poetry is very much tied to its landscape. Atsuro Riley, who introduced him, compared this quality of Heaney’s work to Dr. William Kolodney’s mission in founding the Poetry Center in 1939: “To give poetry a local habitation and a name, to make it belong, to give it a body, to humanize it.”

Even though I have no significant emotional connection with Heaney’s particular “local habitation,” there remains something eminently relatable about his words: wherever his poetry takes place, and whether it’s mournful, sweet, sharp or serene, Heaney’s work is always undeniably human. With his twelfth collection, The Human Chain, Heaney says he is coming back to the “old language of the soul moving through time.” Time, the human soul: these are landscapes we can all relate to, and struggle to understand.

Related: Seamus Heaney was a guest on PBS NewsHour last night, for “reflections on a lifetime of verse.” Watch a video excerpt here.

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