NEW YORK—American and Irish poets gathered in the East Village on Monday night to hold their own memorial for Irish poet Seamus Heaney, a Nobel laureate who died two months ago at age 74. Heaney, a Catholic, captivated many Christian readers through his poems about his family, the Irish countryside, farm life, and spiritual questions. Heaney was especially known for his translation of Beowulf, which captured a new generation of readers.
Every seat was filled in the Great Hall at Cooper Union in evidence of Heaney’s popularity in the United States and his poetry's broad appeal. The attendees included Heaney’s wife and daughter, three Pulitzer Prize winners, and musician Paul Simon. Twenty writers clustered on stage in folding chairs to read their favorite Heaney poems aloud. The organizer asked them to read the poems they chose without any speeches or analysis, but the readers allowed themselves a few editorial comments about how they knew Heaney or how his work had helped them. Several compared Heaney to Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Edward Hirsch, an American poet, recounted how Heaney had once told him that writing poetry was like putting your leg in pants, because you find “no bottom.” That remark echoed Heaney’s poem “Bogland,” which talks about the Irish peat bogs: “The wet center is bottomless.”
Paul Simon said he first heard Heaney read poetry in the Abbey Theater in Belfast, Ireland, in 1991. Simon read Heaney’s poem “Casting and Gathering.” American poet Jane Hirshfield read one of Heaney’s sonnets that he wrote for his mother after she died, which recounts a memory of peeling potatoes with her when the rest of the family was at mass: “Cold comforts set between us, things to share / Gleaming in a bucket of clean water … Never closer the whole rest of our lives.” A musician played Irish pipes between readings.
Toward the end of the evening Pulitzer-winner Tracy Smith read “Personal Helicon,” which closes with the lines: “I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” Afterward a rare audience of thousands of poetry listeners, a cross-section of young and old, bundled out in the chilly night.