Can you believe this: both poets on the same bill, in the same place only 45 min from my front door. Last night I went to see them; one a former US Poet Laureate, the other a Nobel Literature Prize winner, and both at the Marketplace Theatre in Armagh city. They're appearing there as part of the John Hewitt Summer School, which is now in its twenty-first year.
This year's theme is 'Let There be no Wall,' and this theme was amply demonstrated in bringing together two poets, from such variant backgrounds and placing them on a stage in a beautiful new theatre, on a hot muggy night in Northern Ireland.
Billy Collins was given a rousing introduction first and read from all through his work. His poems sparkle with wit and warmth, always getting a wry laugh from the audience. I couldn't believe that I was sitting there in such a comfortable seat, laughing and following the poems, in just the way that poet Stephen Dunne describes: "We seem to always know where we are in a Billy Collins poem, but not necessarily where he is going. I love to arrive with him at his arrivals. He doesn't hide things from us, as I think lesser poets do. He allows us to overhear, clearly, what he himself has discovered."
My favourite poem read by him last night is hard to pick, for there are oh so many to choose from. I loved his pairing of 'Dharma', about his dog Janine who can head out the front door without any possessions, and 'The Revenant,' written to counter anyone who thought he was being overly sentimental; using a dog's ghost to reprimand us human 'owners.'
Collins spoke about 'poems that don't have much purpose... that have escaped the burden of subject matter,' just before reading 'Hippos on Holiday.' And his explanation of how 'The Lanyard' came to be, with its juxtaposition of what the child makes, in some weird recompense for its mother's care and devotion was darkly comical. Especially the last phrase: 'wove out of boredom.' It made me think of all the things that have been made for me by my brood at summer camps and school art sessions.
Collins is also noted for his short, sharp shockers and to show this he read 'Divorce:' how couples start off as spoons in bed, and later when things go sour, turn into tines of forks, with 'the knives hired.' Ooh. He finished with his title poem from 'Questions about Angels,' about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Collins is able to mix up all the valuable elements of poetry and keep it very accessible. Be careful, you may be wooed as I was, if you ever hear him read live.
Seamus Heaney's introduction was just as rousing, and in Heaney's customary humble manner, he began by reading one of John Hewitt's poems, 'The King's Horses' as a tribute to the poet for whom the summer school is named. He continued with 'Making Strange,' the poem that juxtaposed a visiting poet, Louis Simpson with his father in Heaney's own country around Mossbawn and Anahorish and used language as the means of marrying two strands of existence.
Refering to Robert Frost's poem, 'Mending Walls,' Heaney tracked the theme of the Hewitt summer school, and read 'The Other Side,' which segued nicely into 'A Sofa in the 40s,' a poem about the Heaney children using the family sofa as a train. There is slight darkness to this image as the poem nods towards Europe's ignorance of the atrocities at Auschwitz.
My favourite part of Heaney's reading came when he read two of the Glanmore Sonnets, a sequence dedicated to his mother's memory, from 1984. He told us that he has read them so many times that he knows them by heart, which he amply demonstrated with 'Peeling Potatoes,' a poem with particular resonance for me, in my own poem, 'Roosters.' He recited the first sonnet, whilst looking for 'Folding Sheets.'
Heaney went neatly to his own history in 'Tates Avenue,' with its collection of rugs and blankets, and then read a tanka, 'Midnight Anvil,' in which a blacksmith, Barney Devlin, rings in the new millenium with twelve strikes of the anvil, heard by the blacksmith's nephew in Edmonton, Alberta on a cellphone!
And of course the ending of his session. Here he read Hewitt's 'Gloss on the Difficulties of Translation,' which led into Heaney's own sequence of blackbird poems based on the old Irish, 'Scribe in the Woods' and finished off with 'The Blackbird of Glanmore.'
Both poets were called on to encore for us: Collins did so with 'Building with it's Face Blown Off,' a risky poem, given the setting, but one which we enjoyed; and Heaney read 'St. Kevin and the Blackbird.' So spellbound were we that I heard a lot of people comment on how swift the evening moved past us all. It really was a magical evening, one I shall treasure for years, and I am privileged to say that I have sat in the same room as Seamus Heaney and Billy Collins and heard them read their poetry.