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Seamus Heaney and Louise Glück

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by | Oct 8, 2020

Just today I awoke to the news that Louise Glück had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. “Wonderful,” I thought. As I was already planning for this month’s offering to share some lines of translation from Seamus Heaney, who received the prize in 1995, adding her would be fitting serendipity. 

Louise Glück’s work has been acknowledged and celebrated for many decades. Her spare poems and insightful essays are singular encounters in language and feeling that one wants to linger over and then carry away, like pressing a flower or leaf between the pages of a notebook. I have read and reread, American Originality (2017), a volume of her essays on poetry, many times. In it she writes, “Poetry survives because it haunts and it haunts because it is simultaneously utterly clear and deeply mysterious; because it cannot be entirely accounted for, it cannot be exhausted” (162).

Here are two pieces from her 1992 collection, The Wild Iris, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

I don’t wonder where you are anymore.
You’re in the garden; you’re where John is,
in the dirt, abstracted, holding his green trowel.
This is how he gardens: fifteen minutes of intense effort,
fifteen minutes of ecstatic contemplation. Sometimes
I work beside him doing the share chores,
weeding, thinning the lettuces; sometimes I watch
from the porch near the upper garden until twilight makes 
lamps of the first lilies: all this time,
peace never leaves him. But it rushes through me,
not as sustenance the flower holds
but like bright light through the bare tree.
Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.
I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn't expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring—

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy
in the raw wind of the new world.

Last week we celebrated the College’s 2020 Convocation. There were a number of inspiring speakers and I encourage you to look for the video of the event when it appears on the Antioch website. My short introduction follows. It concludes with a poetic Seamus Heaney translation of Philoctetes, which you might choose to jump to.

Antioch College, Convocation 2020: Freedom to Vote

Tom Manley

Welcome friends and fellow speakers; welcome to the Antioch College 2020 Convocation: Freedom to Vote. 

There is for sure a big election upon us, one that matters in terribly important ways in the message it sends and the freedom it enables. Toni Morrison once wrote, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” Voting is one of the tools of freedom and we must use it when we can to free ourselves and to empower others to do the same. 

But voting isn’t something we do a few times a year. It is something we do every day in the choices we make or don’t. Those choices help us uphold our lives. They are the basis for renewing our agency in the world and inspiring others to likewise participate.   

The late, great Ruth Bader Ginzburg told us, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join.”

Our Antioch Convocation is a collective call towards a renewed activism. An activism that will plant new seeds of hope from which to grow justice, and “justice is what love looks like in public,” according to Cornell West. 

Our Antioch Convocation is a call to remember and reactivate our freedom to vote and to find the light of justice (and love) in the public square. 

To begin this Antioch Convocation, I want to read a passage from Seamus Heaney’s “Chorus,” from The Cure of Troy, a version of Sophocles’ original. (You may have heard a key line from the poem just weeks ago in a speech from Joe Biden: make “hope and history rhyme.”) 

Now, I’m often accused of sneaking poetry into my remarks—guilty. However, in times of darkness and despair, we often turn to poets and storytellers, because it is they who remind and raise us through songs and tales of the past to show the possible. They inspire us to new activism, which is the soil and seed of hope. It is they who help us see how to draw strength of purpose, set clearer intentions, and to summon resilience. It is they who help us make hope and history rhyme. 

Here’s what Heaney, channeling Sophocles writes, in the Chorus’s voice towards the end of the play.

Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

If there’s fire on the mountain
And lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing 
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.