Charles Bennett On His One-to-one with Seamus Heaney
One-on-One Charles Bennett
He put on his glasses. They were half-frame reading glasses, over which he gazed, suddenly fearsome. His whole frame centred and grounded itself, and the gravitas of his gaze made the warm afternoon sticky. I prickled with sweat.
For a while he praised the weak poems I showed him. And then, with a disconcerting stare from over the rim of those glasses, his eyes directly challenging mine with kindly authority, he pointed at one particular spot in the poem and asked, with a growl of enquiry, “And what about this bit, here?”.
In was my first and last one-to-one with Seamus. His office at Harvard (near where I had left my hire-car illegally parked on a leafy Cambridge avenue) was quiet. Not that I was a student of his, far from it. This was a personal favour – and all because Joseph Brodsky had introduced me by saying “Well, this is Charles: and he doesn’t write bad poetry all the time”. No. Just most of it.
Of course I knew about the weak spot in the poem – had known it all along, had hoped he wouldn’t notice. And so I learnt two things: firstly to trust my judgement and rectify whatever I felt wasn’t working in my poetry from then on. And secondly to remember that if the poem didn’t have full confidence in its ability, if it was embarrassed about itself, then the reader would pick up on this either consciously or otherwise. They would feel the poem was weak even if they couldn’t, as Seamus had done, put their finger on my problem.
What we have lost with the death of Seamus Heaney is this level of insight and acuity: the mastery as well as the mystery of poetry craftsmanship. But the work remains. And once the dust has settled, once his reputation has been valued and discussed, the work will always be with us: valuable and careful, the poems looking at us over the top of their reading glasses in warm but wise scrutiny.
Dr Charles Bennett is Associate Professor of Poetry & Creative Writing at the University of Northampton.