Geoffrey Heptonstall: Meeting The Poets
Seamus before he was famous was a poet named Heaney, vaguely heard of but not yet widely read. Only after the seminars did we read him. I thought he was a very good poet. He was a good teacher, a talker and a listener. Bad teachers, I’ve heard it say, know and throw. Good ones know and show. He showed us his poetry, the ones about his native Ireland of course, but others also, a broadening of poetic landscapes that presaged the greatness that was about to ascend on him.
So it was a privilege to discover what kind of poet and what kind of a man Seamus Heaney was before the professorial chairs and the Nobel destroyed the simple exchange of feeling between almost equals. He treated us as equals. He was interested in us. We spoke without the least expectation, and certainly no awe. He was a mendicant of sorts, then a journeyman writing, just about getting by after letting go of the shackles of a regular salary. It was a risk he was taking, he freely admitted. There was no way of knowing how it would end.
To have shared that journey so briefly and at so early a stage was something to inspire, something to keep inside carefully. What did he say that was so memorable? Well, when asked how he could reach such levels of empathy that he showed in his poetry, his reply was a simple, ‘I don’t know.’ He could talk of style and technique. Those difficult matters were the easy part. The impossible question was how? It was also the necessary question requiring an answer.
I saw it was a question we have to answer for ourselves. And how do we do that? By reading the poet concerned, of course. Once encountered, he became a poet one wanted to read. And reading him meant remembering the muted but unmistakable accent that seasoned the cadences of his voice, a blend of diffident humility and assured authority. It surely reflected the character of the man.
Later he became famous. He seems to wear his fame lightly. He is the same, but greyer and slower, than the Seamus Heaney who sat with James, who became a novelist, and me, who is still me. ‘The poetry I write isn’t very good,’ I said truthfully.
Heaney replied, ‘I try to encourage people – except the ones who shouldn’t be encouraged. You should write poetry.’
There I was sitting with greatness. I had seen Beckett (and it was he) in a café. Of course I didn’t approach him. I remember the silent contemplation of that eagle head. When a reputation outgrows its originator the vulnerable and flawed human being takes on the aura of transcendence. A great writer’s reputation is not undeserved, but in some measure unexpected. Writing for a long time in some isolation and relative obscurity, when the bounty comes in the myth takes over.
That wasn’t the case then with Seamus Heaney. I had some hint of the later reputation (perhaps), but for the most part I spoke to a very approachable, fairly successful writer making his first steps toward the achievement that distinguishes him as a smiling public man who is in Allen Ginsberg’s phrase, ‘a self-prophetic master of the human universe.’
Later that summer it was Ginsberg himself I met. I had graduated and was earning a living in a job that enabled me to read and write when it was quiet. Some days were very quiet. I was a bellboy in an hotel. At any time I could be summoned by the bell. But often it was silent. I was reading Paris Review interviews, including the long one with the loquacious, effervescent and well-informed Allen Ginsberg.
What particularly interested for me was that the Paris Review team had caught up with Ginsberg in Glastonbury. They hitchhiked to Wells, then took the bus to Bath. That’s where I was, working the summer before either undertaking further study or finding Real Work. I was living with others living in that curious interlude between university (in our case Bath Spa) and the illusion we call the Real World.
Ginsberg was going to appear at the Bath Festival later that August. It was a fairly hot, fairly good English summer. We went down to Tintagel in Cornwall. The castle on the sea cliffs looked appropriately otherworldly. We were searching for other worlds that were not illusions. The Beat writers held our attention. I knew little about them, but they seemed worth exploring. There was an energy about the Beats that was as inspiring as it was dangerous. I had read Aldous Huxley’s Heaven and Hell, and so was prepared to some degree for the hazards of explorations into the wild. There was only so far I wanted to go.
But seeing Allen Ginsberg was an opportunity. I think I suggested to someone not yet graduated that he interview Ginsberg, if possible, for the college paper. I had edited the paper, but that was mercifully no more. I was going to move forward.
The Theatre Royal, Bath can accommodate about a thousand people in its main auditorium. The night Ginsberg read they were a thousand people. Poets are accustomed to reading to an audience of a few dozen, sometimes less. Ginsberg was one of those poets who are star attractions. He had broken through to a wider audience filled with those who are suspicious of literature as conventional, mannered and effete. They liked raunchy rock, the eruption of anarchic spirit tearing apart all the affectations of a bourgeois world. Ginsberg was a mentor of Dylan and Dylan was cool in the way Berryman wasn’t. That’s a sad way to think, but it was how the young rebels often thought.
They thought Ginsberg was going to be wild and violent, when he was quiet and careful, demanding a concentration from his audience so that his words could be not only heard but absorbed. He commanded attention without raising his voice. Yes, he had an aura about him that contained no arrogance, simply an awareness of his capacity to write what was worth reading, and to speak what was worth hearing.
In the interval we went backstage to speak to him. I began by mentioning the Paris Review interview. I asked if it was done in Bath. He recounted how they had been in Bath, but the interview took place in London. (Later I found he was wrong about that. It was recorded in Cambridge.) I asked him about Huxley. Had they met? Huxley died, he said, before they had a chance to meet. But they had corresponded. He looked sad for a moment.
Ginsberg’s expressions changed more quickly than anyone I have encountered. He adjusted his manner to whomever he was talking instantly. He had the most extraordinary intuitive capacity to read a person’s character at a glance. It was a gift he could have exploited as a salesman or a politician, but he was neither. He was a poet who used his gifts for the betterment of humankind.
He was not free from personal needs, however. I noticed unmistakably the keen interest with which he studied my face. It was not the way an artist looks at you. It was more than general curiosity. There was an intensity, if only for a moment, that spoke of desire. I suspected he desired many people he met casually. It was not especially flattering. The moment of desire soon passed when I looked away. There were going to be others. After the interval he read a new poem about a recent sexual encounter. It was the least interesting part of the evening.
A few questions by me, a few questions by others, and that was all. He wrote down the Hindu mantra he had invoked in the first part of the evening. I copied it into a book I bought. This was a collection of his early work, Empty Mirrors, the poems wrote before anything was published, before Howl and the notoriety, before he was on trial for obscenity, before he was expelled from Czechoslovakia, before he was interviewed by Paris Review. I liked those early poems. I do so now.
I’ve spoken more about Ginsberg, but I think it was Heaney who had the greater impact on me. It was a long time before I found my poetic voice. Or, rather, it was a long time before I found I could write lyric poetry. But the writer’s voice is a quality that can emerge in a number of ways. Chance plays its part. If someone asks you to write a story you become a writer of fiction. If the theatre calls you’re a playwright. It seems natural for an Irishman like Heaney to turn to verse because there’s such a tradition in Ireland, and because Gaelic is a bardic language, a musical language that lends itself to the invocations of a kind that English language writers may seek in Hindu mantras. Heaney writes in English, but his ancestral tongue is Irish, and he is aware of its capacities. Irish English isn’t English English.
So much of writing is intuitive. Much of it cannot be reasoned and it cannot be taught. It has to be experienced. Part of that experience comes through reading. An essential part of it is the personal encounters with the poets. That summer I began to summon the intuitive spirit through meeting two great poets who spoke to me.
Geoffrey Heptonstall is a poetry reviewer for The London Magazine. He has published poetry in a range of British and American magazines: Adirondack Review, Blank Pages, The Bow Wow Shop, Burning Houses, Caught in the Net, Connections, Dead Ink, Decanto, Enigma, English, The English Chicago Review, Every Writer’s Resource, Incandescent, Inclement, Ink, Sweat & Tears, International Literary Quarterly, Living Poets, London Grip, The London Magazine, Message in a Bottle, Other Poetry, The Passionate Transitory, Poetry and Audience, Poetry Monthly, The PEN, The Recusant, The Third Way, Turbulence, and The Write Place at the Write Time.
He has written essays and reviews for a number of cultural papers including Arts Report, The Bow Wow Shop, Cerise Press, Contemporary Review, Encounter, International Times, New Humanist, New Walk, Panurge, Poetry Nation Review, Prole, The Reader, The Recusant, The RSA Journal, The Tablet, Tears in the Fence, The TLS, The Write Place at the Write Time and Write Out Loud Magazine.