Like everybody else who grew up around Boston, I always thought Harvard had very high standards, until they let me in.
When people ask me what I studied during my Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, I usually reply, “The ceiling at the Plough & Stars.” But the truth is it was a once in a lifetime, enriching experience. I took constitutional law with the incomparable Larry Tribe. I took an extraordinary class about the Vichy regime taught by the extraordinary Patrice Higonnet. I got to watch a young Samantha Power, now the US Ambassador to the UN, get her bearings as a journalist-turned-academic. And the friendship of my Nieman classmates, American and foreign-born, is priceless.
But, for me, the indisputable highlight of that year was being able to sit in on Helen Vendler’s seminar on Seamus Heaney. Like Heaney, the great Irish poet who died Friday at the age of 74, Vendler is an international treasure. No academic or critic gets Heaney the way she does. At least that’s what Heaney told me.
And that is why getting a spot in her class on Heaney was like hitting the lottery. So many students want in, but she kept it to a cool dozen, because for her digesting the words of Seamus Heaney is akin to a plate of fine oysters: too many and you’ll miss the briny magnificence of those words.
“I’ll let you audit the class,” Helen told me, “but I’ll have to ask you not to speak, because so much of the grade is based on participation that it would take away from the students.”
I assured Helen I’d keep my mouth shut, and frankly I was far more interested in what Helen and the undergrads, most of them English majors, thought of Heaney.
All bets were off, though, when the great man from Bellaghy himself walked into the classroom at the Barker Center one day 11 years ago. He looked at me, sitting there like a slob with a baseball cap on my head and shook his. We had met a number of times before, most memorably at a Christmas party at the Irish embassy in London, and had what the Irish euphemistically refer to as a session. We had also sat next to each other on more than one Aer Lingus flight, when a wonderful woman named Noreen Courtney used to take pity on me, the poor journalist, and he, the poor poet, and bump us up to first class.
Heaney was his usual self during the class: self-effacing, funny, perceptive, and genuinely interested in the students. Before he won the Nobel Prize, Heaney was a regular fixture at Harvard, traveling to Cambridge with his wife, Marie, to teach. In 1983, Bob Kiely, then the housemaster, gave Heaney a modest guest suite adjacent to the I-entry door at Adams House. Heaney loved his regular sojourns to Cambridge, saying his charges belied the stereotype of privileged Harvard students, because they were earnest, down to earth kids. Who just happen to have scored a zillion on their SATs.
As class broke up that day 11 years ago, Heaney was eyeing me, no doubt in shock that I had kept my mouth shut for an hour. Helen leaned in and explained the arrangement. He meandered over.
“What are you doing this afternoon?” he asked, suspiciously.
“Nothing,” I replied, shrugging.
“Stop by my office at half 5,” he said, conspiratorially. “We’ll take it from there.”
This was typical Seamus: when I went to his office just off Quincy Street, he insisted on introducing me to every secretary and custodian within an arse’s roar.
“Kevin,” he said, shepherding me over to some lady carrying manila folders, “this is Sheila. Sheila, this is Kevin. He’s a journalist. Tell him nothing.”
It was a sly reworking of his 1975 poem about the menace in his native Northern Ireland, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.”
I suggested we retire to Daedalus, the Joycean-themed restaurant on Mount Auburn Street, sandwiched between Adams and Quincy houses.
“Perfect,” Heaney replied. “I have to be at Adams House for dinner with the masters at 7:30, sharp.”
No problem, I assured him. You’ll be there in plenty of time.
Aside from the restaurant’s name, I knew Heaney would like the owners, a pair of Galway-born brothers, Laurence and Brendan Hopkins. And of course, the three of them were talking like old friends in no time. Seamus informed them how much he admired Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century poet and Jesuit priest.
“Ah, Jayziz,” Laurence said, clapping Seamus on the shoulder, “he’s not one of our lot.”
Like most Irish, the Hopkins brothers learned Heaney poems by osmosis. Like Yeats’ verse, Heaney’s words are internalized, memorized, from a young age in Ireland, murmured, as Yeats might have put it, “as a mother names her child when sleep at last has come on limbs that had run wild.” Continued...