Memorial for Seamus Heaney

On Friday I received the sad news that Seamus Heaney, one of my favorite poets, had recently died.

I first encountered Heaney’s work eight years ago in an AP Literature class. Over two semesters, our teacher—a vivacious, knowledgeable man who always fought for the best parts in our class readings of Shakespeare—steeped us in poetry. Insisting that “poetry isn’t always pretty,” he began our first lesson with Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” a graphic account of the poet’s experience as a soldier in World War I. We moved through John Donne, the Romantic poets, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and countless others – our glimpses of each poet ranging from single poems to groups of six or seven. When we arrived at Seamus Heaney, our teacher selected “Digging” and “The Forge.” He read them aloud in his sonorous way, with his natural proclivity for the native Irish inflections of the poet.

I liked Heaney’s unassuming, earthy style, and I liked his rhythms. I liked how, at the end of “Digging,”* Heaney chose the pen because he didn’t believe he could hold the shovel. Thinking of myself as a writer of only novels and dreaming of being a poet, I considered poetry a holy, untouchable craft. (I still consider poetry sacred, but now I choose to reach for it, rather than assume its touch will burn me.)

After this brief foray into Heaney’s work, I completed a ritual for the poets I enjoyed from AP Lit: I searched for Heaney online and read his poems “Blackberry-Picking” and “Song.” I loved what I found, but I didn’t think to purchase a book of his work. I considered my exposure to Heaney incidental; I didn’t think I needed to pursue his poetry beyond the rare moments when it chanced across my life.

The next time I saw Heaney’s name, I was picking up my books for a Periods of Early British Literature class in autumn, 2007. I was a sophomore with a vague idea of the booklist, and, rather than defaulting to the college bookstore, I found myself standing before Barnes & Noble’s shamefully small poetry section, trying to remember which copy of Beowulf I needed. My choices were limited to the stale and formulaic Barnes & Noble Classics edition (with its unromantic cover, thin pages, and spidery, faded font) or a flashy, stylish edition with a striking, high-contrast cover design. The soldier’s helmet emblazoned on the dark cover was textured; I could feel the “metal” links beneath my fingers. The book was sturdy, almost square-shaped, with the Old English verses on the left and the Modern English translation on the right. The translator of course was Heaney. I recognized his name, but I didn’t realize the significance of his work. When I studied Old English three years later, I developed a profound appreciation for Heaney’s translation—I recognized the level of linguistic knowledge and marveled at the intense poetic labor needed for this task.

My English teachers continued to shape my interactions with Heaney’s work. What began in AP Lit intensified throughout three courses taught by Dr. Rae: Early British Literature, Linguistics, and Poetry & Poetics. Katie and I took these courses, and together we fell in love with Heaney’s poetry. Sitting side-by-side in cramped desks, we poured over his poems—inebriated with delight and desperate to show Dr. Rae that we could interpret Heaney as brilliantly as she did.

However, our professor’s most significant gift came outside the classroom, on an enjoyable but poignant evening. Before she transferred to another university, she wanted to have dinner with us. We sat down to Thai food and ginger-pear martinis in an elegant, dim restaurant, and Dr. Rae handed each of us two identical books: a copy of a journal in which one of her poems was published and a copy of Seamus Heaney’s 1995 Nobel Prize Lecture, “Crediting Poetry.”

My edition of “Crediting Poetry” was small and square, a hardcover with dust jacket and thick pages. In the lecture, Heaney articulated his history with poetry—how poetry expresses all human conditions and validates our vulnerabilities. He wrote, “I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.” For Heaney, poetry is a way of keeping your humanity in a turbulent world, for processing and understanding your experiences, for anchoring yourself and your values.

Dr. Rae’s gift has become a treasured possession, one that I share with students as often as I can. Heaney’s lecture overflows with poetic images and manipulations of time and space, blurring the line between poetry and prose. Its form alone earns it a place on my course syllabus. And if students grasp even a vague impression of its message, I know I’ve done them a service.

I started to purchase Heaney’s work on my own, and I continued to receive Heaney’s poetry as gifts from Katie. Each gift commemorates our shared enthusiasm for the poet and our history with his work – a history that resonates with all our classroom epiphanies. During my last and most difficult semester of grad school, Katie presented me with a box of anti-stress goodies, and Heaney’s 2011 collection, Human Chain. When we heard about his death, we read Human Chain aloud together.

Heaney’s “Sunlight” was the first poem I ever read in braille. I’ve written extensively on  my very brief experience of braille poetry—on the struggles and joys of deciphering a single word and realizing its poetic significance, on the ability to finally read poetry outside, on being able to spend so much time laboring over Heaney’s words. I still keep my braille copy of Heaney’s North on a shelf in my office, waiting for the perfect combination of sunshine, autumn breezes, and free time.

The remarkable thing about writing is that it softens the blow of hardship and separation. Poetry has often helped me through extreme difficulties—the death of a friend who was more like a sister, the distance of a thousand miles between my beloved friend and myself, the terrifying waves of doubt that come when any chapter of my life closes and the pages of a new one start to turn. Perhaps this is why I don’t feel desolate about Seamus Heaney’s passing. I must relinquish the far-fetched dream that I’ll meet him in some exclusive yet earthy poetry workshop—the fantasy that he’d shake my hand and say something brief and beautiful about my work. I have to let go of the sorrow that rises each time I think, “He’ll never release another collection.” Katie and I won’t be rushing to the bookstore in search of his latest volume of lectures or poems. He won’t win any more prizes or deliver any more lectures. But he has left us—left me—with so much to explore. Several volumes of his poetry and prose sit on my shelves, in braille and in print, and I have read only a fraction of them. Even his recent book of collected poems doesn’t contain all his work.

Seamus Heaney’s is not an easy loss to bear, but I believe that his poetry will do what poetry always does. It will, as Heaney wrote, be “itself and…a help.” I am thankful that he trusted so much to poetry and left us so many poems in which to trust.

* I recommend that you listen to Heaney read “Digging” aloud. The link is just above the text of the poem.

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Word-power

In the autumn of 2010, I took one of the most fascinating and challenging courses of my entire graduate program, Introduction to Old English. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, was spoken by the inhabitants of the British Isles from 449-1066AD. A Germanic language, Old English is an ancestor of Modern English (what we speak now). During the first class session, the professor explained that we would learn the rudiments of Old English grammar and history, complete our own translations, and read canonical texts – including schoolbook dialogues between lords and shepherds, beautiful epic poems, medieval sermons, and charms to ward off a swarm of bees.

To begin steeping us in Anglo-Saxon culture, our professor insisted that we choose Old English names. We would use these in place of our legal names throughout the course, creating helpful place cards for our desks and writing them on all our assignments. To inspire us, the professor wrote a series of words on the board – things like “gar” (spear), “wine” (friend), “beorht” (bright), “æthel” (noble), “treow” (tree/true), and “cyne” (great/mighty). She said we could assemble a name from these 20-30 words or create our own, using our simple Anglo-Saxon/Modern English dictionary.  In true Anglo-Saxon style, we would craft an identity for ourselves by marrying two strong words together.

After some deliberation over the dictionary, I sought help from an enthusiastic friend. Katie and I found a database of Anglo-Saxon words online, and she suggested the name Modwyn. “It means ‘heart’s joy,’” she said. “Perfect for you!”

At the next class, our professor went up and down the rows, asking each student to spell and pronounce the Old English name he or she had chosen. With some students, she asked for an explanation – why had they chosen that particular name or what did they think it meant? For others, like the student who dubbed himself “Gar-cyne” (Great Spear), little justification was desired.

When it was my turn, I pronounced Modwyn proudly. I stressed the first syllable, gave a tall, elegant, long “oh,” and a playful short “i” in wyn. MOHD-wyn.

“Brave joy.” My instructor noted the name and the spelling and smiled at me. “Beautiful.”

“I thought it meant ‘heart’s joy,’” I said.

“It does,” she explained. “But mod is your heart, your mood, your innermost self. It also means brave. And wyn, of course, is joy.”

Perhaps because I adored the class and the language, I began to internalize the concept of brave joy, an inner joy indomitable by outside forces. I thought of my own happiness as a small, private ember that I nourished through music, learning, nature, and frequent laughter. It was an ember that rarely winked out, and, because I was happy most days, I thought, “I’m just a happy person.”

However, I know that thought is no longer true. I’ve lately remarked to my mother that being an adult really sucks. I have bills and responsibilities, and I’m a citizen of a world with an excess of violence and hardship. Sometimes I feel burdened by the problems that are too big for me to solve. Other times, I feel panic and anxiety because I can’t imagine the future. In these moments, I forget my own strength. I forget the joy that inspired my Old English name. I want to find delight in small things – birdsong, the smell of sautéd garlic, a friendly greeting – but I fear that my joy makes me seem naive or irresponsible.

Only when I am coming out of one of these difficult times can I remember my own strength and the resilience I’d like to have. In these moments, I realize that each day’s happiness is an act of courage, not an act of naiveté. To commit to living a joyful life, I must fight for the joy I want. I must put away the impressions of others. It is absurd to think that only naive people are happy, but this is a sentiment I face daily. Maybe because I am young or blind or female, others often take my happiness for granted. They look at me and think, “She is just a happy person.”

There is no such thing as “just a happy person.” Happiness is a daily commitment, and joy requires effort and courage. There is no name for weak joy or tired joy or craven joy. All joy is brave joy.

I’ve kept the name Modwyn because I want to commit myself to living with brave joy, a feeling that empowers me to handle my work and responsibilities with integrity and passion. I blog under the name Modwyn because this blog is where I display my commitment to courage and happiness. Anger and frustration will continue to motivate some posts, but I hope that joy will inspire many more.

This is my sincere expression of gratitude to the readers who have been with me so far and my extension of welcome to those just joining. I started this blog for myself; I wanted to encapsulate the funny and frustrating moments of my life. I expected only a handful of family members and loyal friends to take an interest. But now, as others read, share, and respond, I realize that it can be so much more than I ever imagined. I know that the brave joy will spread.

Blind Student

Before time pulls a fine, shimmering mist over my academic experiences, I must write from the perspective of the blind student. Though my studies pass beyond each graduation, I find myself in a new role, the teacher’s role, and my ideas about students are changing.

So, meet me at the door of all my classrooms, and let’s wander through the experiences of a student like me.

First, you’ll notice that I arrive early. I’m here a few minutes before you, running my fingers over the braille at the classroom’s entrance. Paranoid that I’ll enter the wrong class, I want to appear competent. Let’s walk through the door that our instructor has just unlocked. I’ll want to find a seat close to the front of the room. I’ll fold my cane, place my large schoolbag under the desk, and pull out my notebook and pen. Depending on the classroom’s lighting, I’ll either remove my shades or keep them on. I’m hoping for dim lighting; I’d rather take off the shades.

No doubt, our instructor will begin passing out a syllabus. Two things about this process will make me anxious: 1) I won’t be able to tell that the instructor is handing me a paper unless he or she announces this, and 2) I won’t be able to read the syllabus, since the instructor has probably printed it in size 11 or 12.

Of course, each circumstance has its exception. When I choose classes with an instructor I’ve experienced before, I can count on some measure of accommodation on the first day. In one such case, a Rhetoric & Composition professor printed my syllabus in size 24! When he placed it before me, I felt surprised and gratified. I immediately flipped through it, delighted that I could hold the paper farther from my face.

In most cases, however, I endure the first class without accommodation. I cannot expect instructors to intuit my needs before I introduce myself. After that first class, I hurriedly shove my books into my bag, whip out my letter from the Disability Resource Center, and attempt to catch the instructor in conversation.

Most professors are kind, willing to assist, and welcoming. I’ve never had an instructor refuse me accommodations. I tell them, “If there’s something on the board, I won’t be able to read it.” I say, “If you’re calling on me, you have to use my name—otherwise, I won’t know that it’s my turn to speak.” I explain, “Any materials you pass out in class need to be enlarged for me, to size 18, Times New Roman.” (I tell them how I hate Courier New, that it was handcrafted in Satan’s workshop as the bane of all visually-impaired students.) Finally, I tell them that I am excited for the class and that I readily speak up for myself. “I won’t let you ignore me,” I insist with a smile.

My professors ask me for basic reminders and offer benevolent disclaimers:

  • “Could you shoot me an email the night before the exam, so I’ll remember to print yours?”
  • “You’ll have to remind me to call on you—I might forget! And it will take me a while to learn everyone’s name.”
  • “I’ve never had a blind student before. I’m happy to help, but I might take a while to get used to what you need.”

“Don’t worry,” I want to assure them. “I’ll actively participate in class! I will be so talkative and engaged that you won’t be able to forget I’m here. I’ll muster enthusiasm for texts I don’t enjoy, attend carefully to your lectures, and attempt to make brilliant observations—all in the hope that you won’t forget to enlarge my tests or use my name.”

But of course, they forget. They show up on exam day with an armful of copies printed in size 12. They look at me with confusion or embarrassment and ask sheepishly, “Is there any way you could just use the regular copy?” Inclined to say yes, I learn to say no. I answer, “I’m sorry, that would be really difficult for me to read.”

When they don’t forget to enlarge my copy, they forget to bring it. They say, “Oh gosh, I left your copy in my printer! Let me just run to my office and get it!” Meanwhile, they don’t collect the copies they’ve already passed out. Around me, students begin the exam, and I wait for my test. My anxiety mounts—I’m painfully aware that other students are completing their exam while I don’t even have mine. I’m aware that it will take me longer to read the test. I worry that I won’t finish on time, not because of my reading speed, but because my instructor takes 20 minutes to dash to her office and return with my exam.

In these moments, I cannot panic, pontificate, or patronize. I cannot say, “Why don’t you put a sticky note on your computer, reminding you to print my exam in size 18?” Just between you and me, I can read size 14, but I’ve since learned this valuable lesson: when you ask for size 14, professors try to give you 12. They say, “Well, I mean—it’s close, isn’t it? Can’t you just make it work for today? I’ll print your next one larger, I promise. I won’t forget.”

Occasionally, the forgetfulness sparks a creative solution. A professor who forgets to enlarge poems for me begins reading them in a slow, sonorous voice. When he reads, I don’t miss the print copies; I easily follow the poem. His reading precipitates an excellent discussion and furthers my blatant preference for the oral approach to poetry.

Another professor rushes across the room to narrate scenes of a film for me. He crouches by my desk and whispers (not very quietly) into my ear, describing an important scene. I assure him that this isn’t necessary – the classmate sitting beside me excels at audio description – and, reassured, he hurries back to his desk.

When I feel frustrated with my professors’ absent-mindedness, I remember the inclusive efforts of a certain Dr. Rae. She treats me so well that I take five courses with her. After the first day of class, and across those five courses, she forgets to enlarge one assignment. ONE assignment. When she realizes her mistake, she insists on typing the homework, a piece of Old English prose that we must translate, by hand. I find it waiting in my inbox just two hours after class.

She doesn’t tell me, “You’ll have to forgive me—I’ve never done this before.” She doesn’t say, “Oh dear, I’ve left your copy in my office.” She says, “I have a disabled sibling; I know what it’s like. I’m going to do my best for you.”

She spoils me for other instructors. When they forget to accommodate me, I remember that she rarely forgets. I begin to measure them against her, thinking, “If she can remember, why can’t others?” Surely, she has the same workload, amount of courses, lists of names to memorize, and piles of articles to read. But I never have to fight for anything in her class. I never receive a sigh of frustration, confusion, or embarrassment. When the rest of the class easily navigates a text that hasn’t been enlarged for me, she understands my acute feelings of exclusion. And I suspect that she gets my bravado as well. She helps me feel the value of my whole self,  mind and body connected.

I intend to model myself on Dr. Rae. Already, I have adopted her circular classroom arrangement and short response papers. Now, I am waiting for my population of disabled students, so I can extend her fervent consideration to them. I cannot wait to accommodate!