SHIFTING BRILLIANCIES: Digitizing Harvard’s Heaney Recordings

Houghton Library Blog 2014-03-26

Seamus Heaney at the Woodberry Poetry Room, 2000. Courtesy of Harvard Gazette“You can go backwards as well as forwards.” –Seamus Heaney

When I first began the task of creating metadata for our recently-digitized Seamus Heaney recordings (part of the Woodberry Poetry Room’s initiative to digitize its entire collection of rare and at-risk Heaney cassettes), I anticipated a fairly straightforward trajectory. I’d sit down, don the headphones, note each poem’s title and time stamp, and, ta-da, the metadata would be done. After all, here was the Nobel laureate and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence, presenting his work at none other than Harvard University: the unedited files would be raw, but I assumed the content would be seamless. It was a surprise then, when, on one of the first recordings I listened to (dated October 1998), Heaney shared early drafts from his translation of Beowulf: selections significantly different from the version he would later publish. As other instances arrived—experimental versions of poems, extensive elaborations on more minimalist essays—I began to sense a pattern not at all linear. Heaney had a way of traveling through the tenses of his work—of thinking about them in the presences of others and involving them in that activity—that was both idiosyncratic and deeply generous.

In one such lecture, in October, 2002, Heaney waxes Yeatsian while discussing the origins of his sequence Squarings, which began as a simple, solitary memory: “An image of a beggar standing at a threshold, […] an old ruined house, an empty house with no roof on it, with weeds growing in the hearth, and a little puddle in the hearthstone.” That remembered image would eventually generate 48 twelve-line poems, a feat which would have daunted the young poets in Heaney’s audience had he not been willing to provide evidence of his missteps along the way. When, midway through the discussion, Heaney reads a discarded early draft of the first poem in the sequence, the entire room reacts with laughter, but Heaney is the first to inaugurate it with a chuckle.

Seamus Heaney Lecture: “Sixth Sense, Seventh Heaven: How Some Poems Got Written” (3 Oct. 2002)

The awkward, perhaps overwrought phrase “brilliant tourbillons” becomes, in the poem’s final version, “shifting brilliancies.” The lecture itself was published in an alternate form in Dublin Review that same autumn.

In the series of lectures and readings he gave at Harvard during this time, Heaney is by turns erudite, intimate, austere, and tender, but always willing to share a version of himself and the “shifting brilliancies” of his work not available on the printed page.

Our digitization initiative (the preliminary part of which will cover the years 1998 through 2002) is one of the many ways that Harvard is honoring the late poet’s lasting contributions to the university. The Woodberry Poetry Room recently posted online a Memorial Celebration sponsored by the Harvard Department of English.

–Mary Walker Graham

Mary Walker Graham is a 2013 graduate of Simmons College School of Library and Information Science and currently works with curator Christina Davis to oversee the Woodberry Poetry Room’s digitization initiative.