Two poets, one story.
Poetry matters. Of this I have no doubt. Like stories, poetry speaks in images, bypassing the discursive mind and accessing the heart’s emotional core.
Poet and teacher Mark Nepo drew an adoring crowd recently at Unity Vancouver, where he read from his book of poetry, The Way Under the Way (Sounds True, 2016). Mark had asked me to tell a couple of stories in the course of the evening and I was honoured to be part of the event.
The audience was invited to participate by asking a question or offering a reflection. One woman held up a well-read copy of Mark’s Book of Awakening. The cover was missing, the pages curling. She described how the book had been a companion and guide through her cancer journey, many years earlier. Then she held up a second copy of the same book. This one still had its covers intact. Colourful bookmarks marked favourite passages. This copy, she told us, had belonged to her husband, an academic, who'd had his own cancer journey and had died a few years earlier.
It struck me that we express our gratitude to writers and poets not just because their words speak directly to our experience, but because the honesty and depth of their writing invites us to honour our own joys and sorrows.
One of my stories was a personal account of visiting Ireland in 2013 and witnessing the way a poet can impact an entire nation.
A few years ago, I received an invitation to lead a retreat in Ireland. My friend Eva runs a meditation centre in the town of Dingle, in County Kerry. The theme I planned to explore was generosity. The question I wanted to investigate was very simple, “What does it mean to live a generous life?” Over the course of the weekend, besides giving instructions in meditation, I would tell a handful of stories - folktales about giving and receiving.
I arrived in Ireland with a few days to spare, so I headed west to Connemara. One morning, after a brisk walk along the shore road near Clifden, I stopped to buy provisions and saw the headline, “Seamus Heaney, 1939 - 2013.” Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel laureate, had died at the age of 74.
It seemed that the whole country went into mourning for this beloved poet. Bookstores and libraries set up displays of his books. On the radio, in the newspapers, and on television, stories were shared of Seamus Heaney’s generosity. Apparently, he rarely turned down an invitation to read at an event, no matter how small.
At the funeral, one of his sons revealed that his parents had been in the habit of sending messages to each other in Latin, and the last words his father had sent to his wife were “Noli Timere - Do not afraid.”
I had heard Seamus Heaney speak while I was at graduate school, and I knew his poetry through a friend of mine in Comox. Hearing of his sudden passing, I wanted to pay tribute in some way. But how?
Ireland being a somewhat magical place, I trusted that the right opportunity would present itself.
A few days later, I caught a bus to Dingle, arriving one day earlier than my friend Eva was expecting me. I stayed in a hostel a little ways out of town.
The next morning, I left my bag and walked the mile or so into town, thinking I would find the library and get my bearings.
As I entered Dingle, I saw a sign pointing down Green Street to the library. I turned in that direction, only to find myself passing the Dingle Bookshop. There in the window was a notice, “Poetry reading in honour of Seamus Heaney, 1 p.m.” The time was just 12:15.
I went in and spoke with the bookshop owner. She told me how her heart had been caught off guard and blown wide open by the suddenness of the poet’s death.
She was, in fact, quoting parts of Seamus Heaney’s poem "Postscript":
You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
I helped her set up the chairs for the reading. I chose a seat in the second row.
People came in, many of them holding a well-read, dog-eared copy of one of Seamus Heaney’s collections. A lovely woman, very pregnant, sat down next to me. “Are you going to read a poem?” she asked me, after we had introduced ourselves. “No,” I said, laughing. "I’m just a visitor, passing through."
The readings began, many of them prefaced by a story.
A tall woman came up to the front, carrying a large frame. At the centre of the frame was a scrap of paper with some hand-written lines of verse.
She told us how she had been working at the Dingle Hotel, where Seamus Heaney was a frequent guest. It was a rough patch in her life. Her husband had left her. She had four small children. She’d fallen in love with another man, but he lived far away. She was bereft and troubled.
One evening, she was at work behind the reception desk, when Seamus Heaney was sitting in the lobby, waiting for his wife. Seeing something in her face, he inquired into her troubles, which she unburdened to him. He listened with great sympathy and kindness.
The next morning, he handed her a hotel receipt, on the back of which he had written a few lines of his poetry, from Section XII of Station Island:
Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget. You’ve listened long enough.
Now strike your note.
There were other stories like that.
There were interludes of fiddle music.
People shared how lines and images from particular poems spoke to them directly and to moments in their own lives.
My neighbour stood up and went to read a poem.
At a certain point, the host, a man named Nick, looked right at me, where I was sitting, and asked if I would like to read a poem. I said, “Yes.”
He had chosen one for me. It was this one:
A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.
There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
Through happenstance, I’d been given a chance to pay my respects to a great poet. And at the end of my generosity retreat, it didn’t surprise me that two of the participants, both teachers, had chosen to come because of the theme and how it felt like a way of honouring the benevolent spirit and lifelong generosity of Seamus Heaney.
So, let us be grateful to the poets who remind us to make something beautiful of our lives.