IOWA CITY — Even though thousands of miles separate Iowa City from other cities of literature in Dublin, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Reykjavik and Norwich, someone in nearly every City of Literature has a memory of acclaimed poet Seamus Heaney to share.
Heaney, a 1995 Nobel Laureate and 2003 winner of the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, died in Dublin on Friday after a short illness at age 74. But those who interacted with him during his visits to the University of Iowa during the 90′s and early 2000′s said they will remember him most for his generosity, how much time he spent with students and those participating in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the massive crowds he drew to his readings.
“He was very much a man of the world, and his presence was felt across our small network as well,” said John Kenyon, executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, drawing on an email exchange with other cities of literature on Friday morning upon receiving news of Heaney’s death. “We were sharing small reminiscences across the globe today.”
Christopher Merrill, director of the UI’s International Writing Program, said Heaney’s work was incredibly important to him as he began trying to write poems. He said Heaney’s first book came out just as he was starting to write poetry, and he remembers feeling electrified while reading his Heaney’s poem — “Digging” — in which he compares his father digging in peat bogs to the writing process.
“What poets around the world have taken from him is such delight in his musicality, in the exactness of his diction and his determination to navigate difficult political issues with both moral rigor and wide-ranging sympathy,” Merrill said. “His essays are incredible. There are so many of his poems that will live on forever.”
Born in Northern Ireland, Heaney was best known for his poetry that depicted the pain and passion of the Northern Ireland conflict and a childhood in the Irish countryside. He was also well-known for his translation of the old English epic poem “Beowulf.” His other works include the 1966 debut “Death of a Naturalist”, “The Spirit Level” and “District and Circle.”
Merrill said Heaney’s work was unique because he was able to write poetry without becoming a spokesman for either side of the conflict.
“Everyone had a stake in this battle and he understood the poets job was not to lend his voice entirely to a political struggle, but to register its larger complexities,” Merrill said. “He refused to write propaganda, he wanted to write real poems and by writing real poems that honored the humanity of people on every part of the situation he was able to be viewed as a moral beacon — someone who saw clearly in a very dark time.”
When Heaney was in Iowa City, those who knew him said he was sometimes spotted at Dave’s Foxhead Tavern. He was also frequently invited to dinner parties hosted by the UI faculty, where guests would drink Irish whiskey and engage in civilized discourse. Heaney also wrote a poem about Iowa, titled “In Iowa.”
“He was a very celebrated poet, and unlike some celebrated poets he deserved all the accolades he received,” said James Galvin, an Iowa Writer’s Workshop alumnus and faculty member who spent time with Heaney both in Iowa City and Dublin.
“It was really hard news to hear,” Galvin said of Heaney’s death.
Reuters contributed to this report.