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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!
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)!