A Seamus Heaney reading

The unsought abundance of a crate of apples overturned on the road to Sparta and the sound and feel of them being crushed under the wheels of his car, was the moment that inspired his poem «Into Arcadia,» says Seamus Heaney. The Nobel laureate was speaking to a packed audience on Wednesday evening at the Goulandris Horn Foundation in Plaka. The event was organized by the Irish Institute for Hellenic Studies at Athens, and Heaney took Greece, Ireland and the similarities he perceives between them for the theme of his address, «Herm and Cairn,» and as a thread connecting the poems he read. Prefacing each poem with an account of the moment or image that sparked its creation and peppering the reading with asides for clarification, Heaney pulled his listeners inside his poetry to witness how it comes into being. Bringing the audience even closer to the magic of the poems, his Greek translator, the poet Katerina Anghelaki-Rook, read some exceptional renditions of Heaney’s poems, which capture the sense and melody of every line. «Holy wells, holy wars and holy terrors,» are something else Greece and Ireland have in common, said Heaney, and all are reflected in his verse. The nightmare of civil strife is mediated through legend in «The Augean Stables,» written after the assassination of a friend in a meaningless sectarian attack. Heaney draws on an image preserved in a metope of the fifth-century BC Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Athena, «her stave planted firmly in the ground,» said the poet, «directs Heracles, with a nod of her helmet, to divert the Alphaeos River and clean out the Augean stables.» In the poem, the rushing waters of the river become blood. Sometimes he uses classical images to work out personal questions. «I was thinking about what kind of poet I was,» said Heaney, «when I wrote ‘Hercules and Antaeus,’ wondering whether I might lose my voice if I got too far off the ground.» Teasing out the strands linking Greece and Ireland, Heaney said both countries share three great moments: The pre-Christian past (Hellenic or Celtic), the impact of Christianity (in the form of Byzantium or St Patrick) and the search for redefinition and reconnection that followed independence in the modern era. The role of the poet was similarly affected by history, he claimed. When the struggle for independence was at its height, «the only role available to the poet – and forced on the poet in a way – was the bardic role of being a representative of the nation, the culture,» said Heaney, citing Yeats and Palamas as parallels. And he contrasted that to the notion of «saving the poet’s own soul.» Greece has a special place in the poet’s heart, and not just because he «heard great news» when he was here. A second attempt to visit Nestor’s palace at Pylos (the first was aborted because the palace was closed) was halted when the poet was called back by the Swedes who had awarded him the Nobel Prize in literature. Paying tribute to the role of Greek civilization, Heaney likened it to the Earth’s magnetic field «which gives us all our bearings.» The poet is visiting Greece to participate in a meeting of Greek and foreign writers at Delphi, jointly run by the European Cultural Center of Delphi and the Greek Culture Ministry.