I thought about writing the standard New Year’s Eve fare this year, illustrated with balloons and noisemakers, and festooned with streamers of resolutions. In a contemplative mood, I even toyed with the idea of riffing on the word “resolution” to see where the associations might take me. (You know: “I’m a writer. I resolve to write every day without fail.” That sort of thing.) But my contemplative mood took an unexpected turn. I pulled this copy of Seamus Heaney’s poems down from my shelf, and began thinking about the writers we lost this past year.
Seamus Heaney, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, died on August 30. I met him in the late 1980s; he had come to present a lecture and reading at Oberlin College, where I was a student majoring in English. (A “specialization” within the major allowed me to take creative writing workshops, where I could concentrate on my own poetry.) Members of the English and creative writing faculties were entertaining the “greatest Irish poet since Yeats” at a dinner preceding his lecture. To my astonishment and eternal gratitude, my poetry professor invited me to join them. I was the only student there.
What do I remember of that dinner? There were perhaps six of us, seated at a round table in a windowed corner of the Oberlin Inn. I remember drinking a glass of white wine with whatever it was that I ate. Seamus Heaney regaled us with wonderful stories. Another of my professors talked about reading Danté in the Italian with an esteemed emeritus.
You have to remember: I was an older student, probably 31 or 32. My parents never went to college. I hadn’t even read an English translation of Danté yet. But one thing was clear to me: I had come a long way from the darkened movie theater where I saw Educating Rita and resolved to return to school.
My professor had told Seamus Heaney something of my story: married student with a young son, commuting every day to classes from a neighboring town, writing poetry that they all thought showed promise. I know this because at the book signing following the lecture, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats told me. “I think what you’re doing is wonderful,” he said. And then he signed two books for me.
Rest in peace, Seamus Heaney. I hope you’re enjoying many fine meals in the sweet hereafter, and that Yeats and Danté are among your table companions.
Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author
Iain Banks, Scottish writer
Dr. Joyce Brothers, psychologist and author
Carolyn Cassady, writer
Tom Clancy, best-selling military novelist
Janet Dailey, romance writer
Roger Ebert, film critic and journalist
Syd Field, author of books on screenwriting
Rev. Andrew Greeley, best-selling author and columnist
Marcella Hazan, cookbook author
Seamus Heaney, Irish poet, Nobel Laureate
Oscar Hijuelos, Pulitzer Prize winning Cuban-American novelist
Peter Kaplan, editor, New York Observer
Elmore Leonard, best-selling crime novelist
Doris Lessing, novelist, essayist, poet, Nobel Laureate
Albert Murray, novelist and critic
Alvaro Mutis, Columbian writer and poet
Ahmed Fouad Negm, Egyptian poet
Barbara Park, children’s book author
Ida Pollock, romance novelist
Lou Reed, songwriter, singer, musician
Andre Schiffrin, editor
Mary Thom, feminist, writer, editor
Ned Vizzini, YA author
Bernard Waber, children’s author
Colin Wilson, British author