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Why a young poet “digs” Seamus Heaney

Anyone who’s heard Brynn Downing read her poetry knows she’s magical. Chris Ransick, former Denver poet laureate and the Lighthouse instructor who recruited her to read at the Draft 12.0 late last year, said that she “messed with his mind.” We soon saw (or heard) what he meant: visceral, truthful, transporting, surprising poetry. (Oh, heck. Read for yourself.) This kind of mental disorder, we could all do with more of–to put it awkwardly. I heard recently that she was jazzed to be signed up for a reading as a writer course on Seamus Heaney. I confess I was a little surprised, especially since she’s no fan of his most famous poem, “Digging.” I asked her why she was so excited, and she generously wrote up her thoughts. Check it!

He's no bore: Nobel Laureate Seamus "Don't Call Me Yoda" Heaney

Through the course of working on this post, I drank four glasses of wine, ate two cupcakes and a bagel, and restarted more times than I have fingers. I tried a handwritten version, and then typing again. I compared Seamus Heaney to Yoda, Mr. Miyagi and my high school English teacher. While I still think creating a cento might be the best way to catalogue and inspect my feelings, I don’t know what use that would be for anyone else. I reread his bog poems, and realized I still don’t like “Digging”, which sounds like a lost Billy Collins poem.

There’s little I can say about Seamus Heaney’s prowess that hasn’t been said by better poets, or awards committees. Nobel Prize? Saoi? The “greatest poet of our age”? He modernized Beowulf and dragged Antigone into twentieth century Ireland. When I look at his list of publications, I want to crawl back into bed with a stiff drink, and declare that I’ll never write anything again.

I thought Heaney was a bore when I first read him. I am grounded in the punk music of the 70s, the writings of Jim Carroll and Charles Bukowski; I wanted to jump on the beds of carefully realized poems, throw them against walls and make messes. I skipped over Heaney. Sometime later, I was introduced to Paul Muldoon through his poem “Ireland”, which directed me back to Heaney. Months after sneering at that squat pen resting as snug as a gun, I found “Punishment,” Heaney’s juxtaposition of the Yde Girl with the Northern Irish women tarred and feathered for dancing with British soldiers. Here was history–breathing, bloody, and sexy.

Billy Collins could keep flipping through that Victoria Secret’s catalogue. I was smitten with Seamus Heaney.

What sustains my infatuation is Heaney’s ability to talk about the past. I do not believe I am alone among writers in trying to come to terms with what has happened–the mistakes, the agonies, and the joys. And like many writers, sometimes my words seem to sit fully within my own sphere of knowledge, my own private history. His command of line breaks and meter suggest an intimacy that we’re all invited into, a universal experience that still sings true.

–C. Brynn Downing

See why we like Brynn around here?  Join her in David J. Rothman’s Reading as a Writer course on Heaney (starting March 20)!

5 comments on “Why a young poet “digs” Seamus Heaney

  1. Robert Schwab
    February 29, 2012

    “Sleeping In” is a fine poem. Thanks for the intro here on the Lighthouse blog.

  2. Kevin Michaels
    March 2, 2012

    Very well written – nice to see that the appreciation for Seamus Heaney comes in time….some times we all have to go forward before we can look back and appreciate the parts of the journey (there’s some sort of metaphor in there…). And I think Brynn nails one of the voices that drives writers – that endless search to recapture and understand the past.
    Great read!
    KM

  3. Joseph Grant
    March 2, 2012

    Great article! It is extremely well-written and provides wonderful imagery in describing the man and his poetry.

  4. Jannett Matusiak
    March 6, 2012

    Your poetry rocks! Saw your reading. Keep writing. Keep wowing people.

  5. Sheila Wright
    March 10, 2012

    I was seduced by Seamus Heaney and his poetry a long time ago. Seduced by his archetypal ‘Irish-handsome, white haired poet’ visits university and somehow seduces all female grad students and young faculty. Seduced by the poetry, of course, and by his brilliant reading of Digging that night. Great to read this blog and know his poetry will be penetrating Lighthouse walls.

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2012 by in Cool Events, Good Books, Member dispatches, The Scoop, The Write Idea, Writing.

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