Reflections on “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens”

View of the Rotunda from the “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens” Exhibition

View of the Rotunda from the “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens” Exhibition

August 29, 2013 was a fun, if slightly overwhelming, day of work on the exhibit “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens.” The curatorial team sat in MARBL for hours going through hundreds of Heaney’s photos as we tried to whittle down our selections to a few dozen. Some of the decisions were easy—several of the more unfortunate hairstyles out of 1970s Ireland did not need to be immortalized—but we were working with an enviable problem: Heaney was an unusually photogenic man. The generosity and joy that came through in every image meant that each one we discarded felt like a loss. Eventually, we gave up and decided to resume the selection process the next day.

Early the next morning, we awoke to the news that Heaney was dead.

The kite that hangs in the center of the exhibit evokes the “long-tailed pull of grief” from Heaney's poem “A Kite for Michael and Christopher.” Installation view “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens” Exhibition.

Installation view “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens” Exhibition.

Of course, in that moment everything about the exhibit was poised to change. But the first loss we felt was personal. Although we had only met him once, spending the amount of time we had with his papers in MARBL had created a sense of intimacy: he felt, almost, like our friend. There was the added disappointment that when visiting Emory in March 2013 for Twelfth Night, Heaney had agreed to come to the opening of the exhibit. Our curator, Geraldine Higgins, had convinced him with her promise to display a kite over the center of the gallery (a nod to his kite poems for his sons and granddaughter, as well as to a passage in his 1995 Nobel Lecture that dares his audience to “walk on air against your better judgment”). The kite that hangs in the center of the exhibit, evoking the “long-tailed pull of grief” in his poem “A Kite for Michael and Christopher,” became a memorial to the poet as well as a testament to the poetry.

But Heaney had been adamant about not making the exhibit feel posthumous, so we did our best to honor that wish. While we have a memorial case for viewers to stop by as they exit the main exhibit space, the rest of the material celebrates Heaney’s living legacy.

Detail of the Rotunda from the “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens” Exhibition

Detail of the Rotunda from the “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens” Exhibition

The exhibit has three main parts: the rotunda, where our designer John Klingler made jumbo-sized copies of Heaney’s major poetry volumes; the corridor, which displays maps on one side of the wall and a timeline of Heaney’s life and events of the Troubles on the other; and the main gallery space, where we display items from Heaney’s papers in MARBL. The main gallery attempts to capture the many parts of Heaney’s life: his biography, his creative process, and his public and international roles.

Seamus Heaney grew up on a farm, Mossbawn, in Bellaghy, Northern Ireland. Though he traveled around the world, he remained rooted in his native County Derry, writing poems that imported the vernacular of his home, the farming culture of his ancestors, and the legends, stories, and anecdotes of his community. Since his birthplace fueled his poetic imagination throughout his life, we had a particular challenge on our hands: how to transform the Schatten Gallery into a space that evoked, however imperfectly, Heaney’s profound sense of place and suggested his love of Ireland. Luckily, Peter Higgins (the curator’s brother) is a professional photographer who lives in Northern Ireland. Printing his exquisite photographs of “Heaney country” on large screen banners, we were able to capture some of the colors and textures of Heaney’s world.

The author of over twenty volumes of poetry, prose, translation, and drama, Heaney was in some ways a traditional “man of letters,” though his primary home was always in poetry. Heaney was, first and foremost, enamored with the sounds, origins, and rhythms of language. Heaney was also a beloved teacher at universities in England, Ireland, and America, often mentoring young, aspiring poets. Perhaps the reason Heaney was such a lauded teacher is because he, himself, was at heart a lifelong student–of language, politics, ethics, history, and human nature.

A creative reimagining of Heaney’s office from the “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens” Exhibition

A creative reimagining of Heaney’s office from the “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens” Exhibition.

Any attempt to represent the creative process always proves difficult. How does a poet draft poems? How many revisions does a poet produce? Where does a writer find inspiration? Because MARBL houses much of Heaney’s correspondence, along with many hand-written and typed drafts of some of his most iconic poems, we knew we were in an opportune if tricky position. We tried to recreate something of Heaney’s writing process in our “Word Hoard” section of the exhibit, where we feature drafts of Heaney’s famous poem “Strange Fruit,” correspondence about his Beowulf translation, and a creative reimagining of Heaney’s office, complete with photos of his jam-packed bookshelves and his actual desk–a homely two-plank school table with coffee rings.

Roughly a quarter of the exhibit tells the story of Heaney’s role as a public poet. During the bloody decades of the Troubles, Heaney became, in many people’s eyes, the reluctant conscience of Northern Ireland. His work sought an ethical way to respond to the sectarian violence in his home without betraying his own creative gift. Knowing the exhibit would attract primarily American viewers (including many Emory undergraduates who were toddlers when the Troubles nominally ended in 1998), we worked hard to create a space that would be accessible to people who were not conversant with the history and politics of the situation.

One facet of Heaney’s public life was his relationship with Emory, which became one of his many homes. This is in large part due to the hospitality and friendship of Dr. Ronald Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English, who was instrumental in encouraging Heaney to place a large portion of his papers at Emory, as a memorial to the work of recently retired president, William M. Chace. Heaney’s relationship with Emory began in earnest in 1988, when he inaugurated the Richard Ellmann Memorial Lectures. In one corner of the exhibit, we feature photographs–some formal, others casual snapshots–of Heaney’s various visits to Emory.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the exhibit is the media room, where visitors can hear distinguished poets and actors (including Liam Neeson) read Heaney’s work. Based on the sound booth in the W.B. Yeats exhibit in the National Library of Ireland, the media room is the most ambitious feature of the exhibit. It involved building a small soundproof space that resembles a miniature amphitheater–not to mention procuring recordings from many distinguished figures in Ireland and at Emory. We wanted our visitors to come away from the exhibit with the music of Heaney’s poetry. As Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Irish Times, “Seamus Heaney’s grace will play in our heads long after his earthly light has faded.

The exhibition will remain on view through Nov. 25, 2014 at  The Robert W. Woodruff Library’s Schatten Gallery on level 3. The library  is located at 540 Asbury Circle in Atlanta, 30322. Parking is available in the Fishburne and Oxford Road decks.

All photos by Paige Knight.