‘Seamus Heaney and the Polish Connection’ focused on the role Polish poetry played in Heaney’s artistic growth, enabling him to extend the historical range and ethical depth of his work.
Heaney’s initial interest in Eastern European poetry was stirred soon after Death of a Naturalist appeared, and can be partly attributed to his friendship with fellow Faber poet, Ted Hughes. Co-founder of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation , Hughes was a prime mover in bringing Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Czesław Miłosz to the attention of English-speaking audiences.
The Irish poet’s admiration for and sense of affinity with Miłosz intensified when, in March 1981, he came across the exiled poet’s Nobel Prize Lecture, published in the New York Review of Books. Originating himself from what others viewed as a marginal place, Heaney shared Miłosz’s pride in his childhood terrain. The extended periods of displacement the older poet went through and appalling violence he witnessed were of a different order to those Heaney experienced. Despite the difference in scale, in the imaginations of both writers the home place and its landscapes accrued an idyllic quality, and constituted a ‘still place’ in a troubling, changing world.
Darker notes cannot be kept out, however, as can be seen from poems like Heaney’s ‘A Sofa in the Forties’ and in the little cameo scenes from Miłosz’s sequence, ‘The World’. The latter includes a glimpse of two children earnestly drawing pictures at a tiny table. What they create reflects a world they have learnt about, but not witnessed themselves. Miłosz hits on a perfect image to capture their concentration as they sketch ‘scenes of battle and pursuit’, and ‘with their pink tongues try to help/ Great warships, one of which is sinking (New Collected Poems 38).
At the very time Heaney immersed himself in its poetry and prose, Poland, after four decades of war and occupation, seemed on the point of experiencing ‘a great sea-change’ in its political fortunes, following the rise of Solidarity in August 1980. Northern Ireland, by contrast, was in the throes of a new crisis, as protests in the province’s prisons morphed into 1980 and 1981 hunger strike campaigns. The poems of Station Island (1984) testify to how profoundly these events affected Heaney. In the longer term they strengthened Heaney’s conviction that in periods of terrible destructiveness, bloodshed and injustice, lyric poets had a valuable contribution to make in bearing witness and ‘awakening…a general conscience’ (The Government of the Tongue xv), a position which owed much to Miłosz’s.
Alongside works by Poland’s foremost poets (Miłosz, Herbert, Różewicz, Szymborska and Barańczak, and a short extract from the close of Andrej Wajda’s award-winning film, Man of Iron, the session included examples of Heaney’s own poems that possess comparable imaginative skills and insights. It ended with extracts from a talk Heaney delivered in 2008 to the Irish-Polish Society in Dublin, celebrating the work of Zbigniew Herbert, whom he praises for his steadfast commitment to the cause of literature – something his life and work richly exemplifies.
Comments from those attending:
‘A fascinating analysis of the influences of the Polish poets – primarily Czesław Miłosz – on Seamus Heaney by someone who knows the poets’ work intimately. Well researched, scholarly and insightful, the presentation provides a valuable historical context and manages to appeal as much to the layman as to the academic’ (Eugene Kielt)
‘Generous, involving, Michael Parker’s lecture detailed the shaping affinities between Seamus Heaney and the Polish poets he came to admire. In so doing, he is making an essential expansion to scholarship on Heaney’s writing’ (Michael Kinsella).