IF EVER there was proof needed that poets never really die, it was present last night as Dublin celebrated the life and work of Seamus Heaney at the National Concert Hall.
Distinguished poets and musicians filled the city centre venue as some of the finest practitioners in the world of Irish music and literature gathered to honour the Co Derry poet. They included Paul Brady, Lisa Hannigan, Paul Muldoon and Martin Hayes.
Most prominent among them, however, was legendary American songwriter Paul Simon, who earlier in the day unveiled a tapestry at Dublin Airport in honour of Heaney, who died last year.
It was paid for by a group of Heaney’s fans, including Simon and U2’s Bono.
Speaking to the Irish Post last night, Simon, who performed alongside Co Clare fiddle player Martin Hayes, praised Heaney as a writer with “a lot of wisdom in his poetry”.
Admitting he was nervous ahead of performing in front of the Dublin audience, the 12 time Grammy winner added that he felt the occasion was filled with a lot of sadness at the loss of the poet he called a friend.
“We were friends and I am really a fan of his writing and I have been for a long time,” he said last night.
“I’m looking forward to tonight with trepidation because I set one his poems to a melody and then I incorporated two other poems into the song with a little help from Paul Muldoon: we each did a verse. I do think that it’s much better than me reading with an American accent.”
Describing his first encounter with Heaney’s work, Simon added: “Well, I was here in Dublin when Seeing Things was first published in 1991. I saw him read from Seeing Things at the Abbey Theatre. We had a mutual friend in Derek Walcott and Derek introduced us.”
Asked what it was that he appreciated most about Heaney’s poetry, songwriter Simon picked up on the musicality of Heaney’s language.
“The sound of Heaney’s words are almost physical,” he said. “The way he uses sounds and describes things with sounds…he’s very musical in that sense. From my point of view, in terms of scanning for a song, that wasn’t easy, which is why I chose that haiku of his Dangerous Pavements, because that by its nature falls into 6/8 time signature, but also there’s a lot of wisdom in his poetry.”
Simon’s presence at the event, which was supported by Poetry Ireland and Dublin City Council’s One City, One Book initiative, was helped brought about by New Jersey based Armagh poet Paul Muldoon, who first met Heaney at a reading in Armagh, aged 16, and developed a long relationship with Heaney, delivering, as he did last August, the eulogy at Heaney’s funeral.
“It was very easy to get Paul Simon on board because Paul was a friend of Seamus Heaney and, most importantly, a reader of Seamus Heaney,” the 62-year-old said.
“Paul had met Seamus over the years and I think Paul was very glad to be part of this evening. Paul has been working on a song that is derived from two or three poems by Seamus and in some sense it sticks together, but like many items in the world, and one thinks of the patchwork for example, it’s very effective, as you’ll hear later on.”
Muldoon added that he is still feeling the impact of the loss of his friend of almost 45 years on what he called “a very emotional night”.
“I recently saw in an anthology today the name Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013). It was the first time that I’d seen his dates written down and I thought ‘My God, he’s really gone,’” he said.
“But without getting fanciful and ridiculous, he’s not dead and he will be with us forever and he will be with us tonight. I think his spirit will be here and never mind how we feel and how emotional we might be about these things, I think about his wife and his children and how difficult it must be for them.”
Noted Clare fiddler Martin Hayes performed on-stage with Paul Simon and commented that his last minute addition to the bill came with the perk of being flown back from the US on Paul Simon’s private jet.
“I came courtesy of Paul Simon,” he smiled. “He emailed me four or five days ago. I was over in the States, so I came home with him for this. He’s a great traveling companion because he’s got a nice plane! Paul’s great, he’s a really nice guy to be around.
“We played on the plane, we played a little last night and a little bit today. Paul has put a beautiful melody to a collection of different lines from Seamus Heaney’s poems. Paul uses Seamus Heaney’s haiku verse that Paul calls Dangerous Pavements, which makes up the chorus. One of the lines is from a poem called The Ashplant and there’s a song called The Ashplant so Paul will play guitar on that tune since it was one of the poems from which he was getting something.”
Even for the celebrated fiddle player, currently on promotional duties with The Gloaming, playing with Simon was a more than memorable experience.
“It’s really intimidating: it’s hard not to feel incompetent in his presence. And I keep thinking, “He played with people like Stéphane Grappelli. Who else has he played with?! How am I measuring up, here?!’ But Paul’s very broadminded about what he wants and he wants the music to feel a certain way more than anything else: he’s not always looking for technical perfection and competence.”
Paula Meehan, Ireland’s Chair of Poetry, added that the night was one of reflection. “It’s going to be a very emotional night and one that shows that great poets never die.”
Her sentiments were echoed by President Michael D Higgins, who was delighted to be part of the evening’s festivities. “It’s a great honour to be part of the tribute to Seamus Heaney. The poem that I’m reading, From the Republic of Conscience, is a poem that I remember its first being composed in 1985. I’m very much looking forward to the evening. Old friends and fine people. I’m also delighted to be involved in the work of libraries, the work of books.”
Earlier in the day, Simon was on-hand to unveil an airport tapestry that will be seen by an estimated 10m passengers each year, as they pass through Terminal Two at Dublin Airport.
The airport tapestry was designed by Czech artist Peter Sís and features an excerpt from Heaney’s poem Lightenings VIII.
Mr Simon said: “How wonderful that the memory of Seamus Heaney will be celebrated with a work of art.
“Travellers would do well to carry Seamus Heaney’s words with them as they journey around the globe. He was truly a poet for all the world.”
As he unveiled the piece, Mr Simon added: “Seamus’ poetry, although it springs from the Irish well, has a beauty and a wisdom that nourishes anyone who reads it.”
The tapestry was commissioned by Bill Shipsey, the founder of Art for Amnesty, an art engagement arm of Amnesty International.