Seamus Heaney exhibition to open Feb. 22

By Maureen Mcgavin | Jan. 12, 2014

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The world-renowned poet Seamus Heaney had a relationship with Emory that spanned three decades. Emory Photo/Video.

Emory University will debut the first major exhibition to celebrate the life and work of late Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney since his death, including rarely seen photographs, personal correspondence with other writers, and the surface of his one-time writing desk.

"Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens" opens Saturday, Feb. 22, in the Schatten Gallery on level 3 of the Robert W. Woodruff Library, with a free public celebration in the gallery at 5:30 p.m.

Among the materials on display, most of them from the Heaney collection held by Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), will be Heaney's poems and drafts showing his handwritten revisions, rare publications, and artists' books containing Heaney's poetry. The exhibition also will feature recordings of his poetry read by Heaney himself and by other poets, artists and well-known figures including world-renowned Irish actor Liam Neeson and novelist Sir Salman Rushdie, whose papers are also held by MARBL.

Heaney, who died Aug. 30, 2013, was known for his generous spirit and inclusiveness, and his death was a devastating blow, says Geraldine Higgins, director of Emory's Irish Studies Program and curator of the long-planned exhibition. Emory's Woodruff Library hosted a remembrance event Sept. 10, 2013, during which members of the Emory community, many of whom had become well acquainted with the poet through the university's ongoing relationship with him, shared stories and read Heaney's poems.

"One of the things we really want for the exhibition is that it reflect his warmth as well as his words," says Kathy Dixson, exhibitions manager for Emory Libraries.

Heaney's makeshift desk

On display will be the surface of Heaney's old writing desk from the 1980s—actually two oak planks that were part of an old bench from Carysfort College in Dublin, where Heaney taught in the 1970s.

Heaney described the desk surface, which he would set atop two short cabinets, in a 2007 column in The Guardian as "oak whose grain had been polished by the soft shiftings of a century of student schoolmistresses." In the column, Heaney said he "liked the makeshift nature of the arrangement. I always had a superstitious fear of setting up a too well-designed writing place and then finding that the writing had absconded."
 
A large kite will be at the center of the exhibition, suspended over the spiral staircase in the gallery that descends to the lower floors of the library.

"It's not colorful. It will be a plain white kite, because that's what he remembered flying as a boy," Dixson says. The last poem in Heaney's final volume, "Human Chain," is "A Kite for Aibhín," written for his second grandchild. It was also the last poem he read at Emory, "so that also makes it a poignant connection for us," Higgins says.

Also featured will be selected correspondence between Heaney and other writers whose papers are held in MARBL, including Ted Hughes, Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley.

Four perspectives

The exhibition will be divided into four sections.

1. "Excavations," partly inspired by Heaney's best-known poem "Digging," will focus on his origins and introduces some of the friendships that remained important to him throughout his life, many of them with writers whose papers also are held by MARBL.

2. "The Word Hoard" will examine Heaney's writing process. Apart from his writing desk, this section will display drafts of his best-known poems, iPads showing digitized images of rare illustrated artists' books, and a magnetic poetry board on which visitors can compose their own "Heaney poem."

3. "The Republic of Conscience," named for the poem commissioned by Amnesty International, will examine Heaney the political poet, who was a voice for the Nationalist population in the North of Ireland at the beginning of the Troubles and remained attuned to injustices around the world throughout his life.

4. "Listen Now Again" will feature a custom-built media space where visitors can listen to Heaney and other distinguished writers and artists read his poems. "It's one thing to read poetry. It's a completely different thing to hear it spoken," Higgins says. "Heaney was an extraordinary reader of his own poetry and we know that it will be a powerful experience for visitors to listen again to his voice and to hear his words read by this amazing group of friends and admirers." 

'The music of what happens' 

Higgins chose the exhibition title from a line in the Heaney poem "Song," which has its roots in the legend of Irish hero Finn McCool, who asks his warriors what the best music in the world is. When they turn the question back to him, he replies, "The finest music of all is the music of what happens."

"The poem really captures the way Heaney is able to celebrate the everyday and transform it into something miraculous," Higgins says. "That's also something we hope the exhibition will do—take visitors through the trajectory of his writing, from the earth-bound bog poems of his early work to the airiness and uplift of crediting marvels in his later career."

The exhibition had been planned for more than a year, prior to Heaney's death. Higgins had met with the poet a few times to let him know what the plans were for the exhibition, and he was pleased with the ideas, she says. "I also told him about the kite, and his face lit up," she recalls. "I'll always be grateful I got to tell him about it, that he knew about it and he was planning to come."

Heaney's connection to Emory

Heaney had a special connection to Emory that can be traced back to his first reading in March 1981. He delivered the inaugural Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature in 1988, donated his lecture notes to MARBL (then called Special Collections), and conducted readings and poetry workshops in the 1980s and 1990s. His last visit to Emory was in March 2013, when he read his poems before a capacity crowd at Glenn Auditorium.
 
MARBL's collection of his papers was established in September 2003 when Heaney placed his correspondence with the library in honor of his friend, retiring Emory President Bill Chace. Since then, the collection has expanded and now includes rare inscribed editions of his work donated by his friend, Emory English professor emeritus Ronald Schuchard, who will speak at the opening celebration.
 
The exhibition will remain on view through Nov. 25, 2014. The Robert W. Woodruff Library is located at 540 Asbury Circle in Atlanta, 30322. Parking is available in the Fishburne and Oxford Road decks.
 
For event-related information, contact Julie Braun at jkbraun@emory.edu.