During the second stage of my Visiting Scholarship at the University of Gothenburg, I had the opportunity to deliver three presentations drawn from my main research areas. The first of these was entitled ‘A Holding Field: Seamus Heaney and Translation’, which highlighted the poet’s early recognition of the importance of translation in extending the reach of his literary project. It reflected his deep respect for artists from near and distant cultures, and a grasp of their value in illuminating affinities and differences between their worlds, their histories and those of home. They helped in his attempts to reconcile the ‘contradictory awarenesses’ that affected him, his obligation to find ways to address the terrible actuality afflicting people in Northern Ireland and his duty to follow where instinct and imagination led. Translation, like his own original compositions, offered a means of bringing these conflicting pressures together ‘into one drama, one holding field’.
My second offering was ‘Noli Timere: Reflections on the Life and Work of Seamus Heaney’, originally commissioned by the Irish Literary Society and performed in London in September 2013, with the help of Stephen Regan and Esther Armstrong. On this occasion I drafted in Professor Ronald Paul to read four of the poems. At dinner a few nights before, he and my host, Professor Britta Olinder, recounted their happy memories of a reading Heaney delivered in Gothenburg days after receiving the Nobel Award in Stockholm in 1995.
Especially satisfying was the final lecture, ‘Poetry and Memory’, delivered to a very responsive audience of fifty to sixty first year students. This began responding to a provocative letter that appeared in The Guardian a good few years back, which questioned poetry and ‘its supposed benefit to mankind. Auden says that Poetry Makes Nothing Happen; so what use is it? Poetry may be nothing more than prose chopped into lines’. In refuting this, I pointed out what W.H. Auden had actually written, that poetry was ‘a way of happening’, and went on to elaborate how poetry often gives a voice to the voiceless. To illustrate that I presented them with a range of poems, starting with two pieces by Leontia Flynn, and then moving on to Czeslaw Milosz’s Nobel Lecture, Tadeusz Rozewicz’s ‘Pigtail’, Robert Frost’s ‘Out, out’, and Christina Rossetti’s ‘In An Artist’s Studio’. The session ended with Wislawa Szymborska’s ‘Hatred’, a wry panegyric which asks ‘Since when does brotherhood draw crowds?/ Has compassion ever finished first?/ Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?Only hatred has just what it takes. / Gifted, diligent, hard-working./ Need we mention all the songs it has composed?/ All the pages it has added to our history books?’.