Foothill editor Jaji Crocker looks back on her first encounter with Seamus Heaney.
When I was an undergrad at Vassar, Seamus Heaney came to give a talk and read from his newly published translation of Beowulf. Though even then he was getting on in years he spoke with the energy and enthusiasm of my twenty-year-old friends. The talk lasted an hour or so, and then we lined up to get our copies of Beowulf signed and to ask him a question or two. Waiting in line, I mulled over what I wanted to ask him. Not very well-versed in poetry or poetics at the time, and having only ever read his poem “Digging” (and his translation of Beowulf which I was currently reading for my Old English course), and being rather nervous to talk to a literary legend, I settled on the lame question, “What is your favorite poem?” My turn approached and I set my copy of Beowulf in front of him to sign.
“Hello, my dear,” Mr. Heaney said.
“Hello, Mr. Heaney,” I said, and blurted my question.
Mr. Heaney lifted his head halfway through signing my copy, looked directly at me, at burst into laughter. I had not expected this reaction to say the least. Perhaps a moment of pause followed by a few names of poems or a bored expression to a question heard a hundred times, but not this. His laughter, having attracted the attention of everyone in the room, subsided slowly, though he remained smiling at me when he said:
I got it then, what he found so funny. It was my turn to laugh.
A joke or scenario I find hilarious may fall flat with a friend or may even seem boring to me after a time whether because of its repetition or my own evolving sense of humor. Just like an evolving funny bone, our appreciation of various works of art changes over time as we gain new experiences that alter (for better or worse) our understanding of ourselves and of the world. For that matter, how can you pick a favorite poem particularly when you, yourself, are a poet, constantly evolving as a reader and a writer and a person in general? I know many people and many writers have favorite poems, favorite books, favorite movies, etc. But often favorites change. All these thoughts – more crudely developed at the time – flashed through my brain as I processed Mr. Heaney’s challenge.
As Sir Philip Sidney wrote in what is arguably the first work of English literary criticism, An Apologie for Poetrie, “Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life.” I wish to high heaven I had read An Apologie at that stage in my education and could have pulled this quotation out of my brain; but even if I had, Mr. Heaney’s challenge was largely rhetorical, meant to teach rather than test me. Instead I said:
“Apparently comedy is asking a poet to name his favorite poem!”
Mr. Heaney chuckled, his eyes kind and patient, not rushing me along to the next student. He finished signing my copy of Beowulf and beckoned for me to lean down to him. I did.
“I know a great knock knock joke,” he said quietly.
“Oh, OK,” I said.
“You start, my dear.”
“OK.” I was confused. “Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?” he said, and burst into laughter again. I joined him.
by Jaji Crocker
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