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Seamus Heaney at the Irish Cultural Centre

Seamus Heaney at the Irish Cultural Centre

Review and photographs from far away by Kate Noakes for Paris Lit Up.

Seamus Heaney speaks French, who knew! And that wasn’t all we found out about him at his reading this week at the Irish Cultural Centre as part of the Marche de la Poesie festival. Ireland was the country of honour in this the festival’s 31st year and so, of course, its most famous living poet and Nobel Laureate, was the top draw of the poets who have been in Paris for the last ten days.

A capacity crowd of 800 strong poetry fans packed the courtyard to hear Heaney introduced as one of the greats alongside Yeats, Joyce and Beckett by the present Irish Minister of Culture. That’s quite a hefty gong to hang round a poet’s neck. I wonder if Heaney ever feels the weight of such accolades hard to live up to?

The evening started with a question an answer session – questions in French, reponses in English. From these we gleaned that key images for Heaney are the pen and spade, representing the actual technique of writing, the doing of the work, and the kite, which delightfully the Chinese refer to as ‘fishing in the sky’, for a sense of freedom and skill. Heaney’s engagement with the French language which is evident in his various translations of Bauderlaire and Guillevic really started in school and an early trip to Lourdes as a teenager where he pushed wheelchairs for the infirm to visit the shrine. Ageing and illness (he had a stroke in 2006, from which he has fully recovered) make their way into his writing now, ‘a new theme’, although sometimes he said it feels to intimate to deal with.

His reading was in three parts, the first and second interspersed with some French translations of his poems. Feeling like a bit of a groupie at a rock concert, I found myself cheering the announcement of firm favourites like ‘Digging’, ‘Ode to a Blacksmith’, ‘Tate’s Avenue’ and ‘Postscript’. Choosing work for a reading from such a vast body of excellent poems must be extremely difficult, so it seemed appropriate that Heaney selected poems with a French connection, such as ‘The Bank of the Canal’ (the title of which he took from a painting by Caillebotte), ‘An Artist’ (where he is thinking of Cezanne) and ‘A Herbal’ (translated with liberties from Guillevic ).

At times he had to compete with the nature about which he often writes so lovingly, a blackbird was singing its heart out and changed the reading for Heaney to recite from memory ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’. A charming moment from a virtuoso, whom I am truly thrilled to have seen in the flesh.

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