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Thursday, April 30, 2009

The poetry, and wisdom, of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney, the greatest living English-language poet, turned 70 this week.

The Irish, of course, take their poets more seriously than most -- and they take their Nobel laureates, of whom Heaney is the fourth, very seriously indeed. Monday, then, was quite a day for the Derry-born farmer's son now known to literary Dublin's sharp-tongued gossips as "famous Seamus."

Famous he surely is. In the United Kingdom last year, two-thirds of all books sold by a living poet were by Heaney -- and this despite the fact that he once protested his inclusion in "The Penguin Book of English Verse" with these tart lines: "Be advised, my passport's green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen." No wonder that on a recent visit to The Times, Irish President Mary McAleese recited one of Heaney's poems from memory.

Ireland commemorated his birthday with an exhibit of art inspired by his work, with newly written string quartets and a symphony based on his poems, and with a nationally televised documentary on his life and writings. More than 400 invited guests listened to the poet deliver a birthday address, which was broadcast live over one of the national radio stations, and, afterward, there followed more than 12 continuous hours of Heaney in recorded readings of his collected poems.


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