Heaney, whose poetry was inspired by the landscapes and politics of his homeland, visited UNC twice during his lifetime. He gave the 1996 commencement address to a crowded Kenan Stadium and, almost 20 years earlier, he gave a poetry reading to a small group on a Friday afternoon.
“What an amazing, ironic, wonderful contrast to the audience we had on March 30, 1979, when Heaney first visited,” retired UNC professor Weldon Thornton said at Tuesday’s memorial.
The Department of English and Comparative Literature hosted the poetry reading in honor of the poet nearly one year after his death.
Professors, students and community members volunteered to read selections of Heaney’s poetry, delivering lines that were met with a mix of laughter, thoughtful silence and applause.
Chancellor Carol Folt was the first to read, introducing “Digging,” the poem that has become one of Heaney’s most famous.
“This is a favorite poem of several people who mean a lot to me,” Folt said, explaining that it reminded her of gardening with her father.
Senior English major James Butler also read one of Heaney’s poems aloud.
“Heaney was one of the first poets who ever inspired me,” he said.
Mejs Hasan, a UNC Ph.D. student, attended the event not to read but to listen.
“I wanted to get out and listen to something that was beautiful,” she said.
The event was in Wilson Library — home to the Seamus Heaney Collection, which contains about 1,300 items, including autographed first edition volumes of poetry and handwritten letters between Heaney and Henry Pearson, who started the collection.
“I met Weldon Thornton, read at Chapel Hill and felt charmed by the place,” Heaney wrote in a postcard to Pearson in 1979.
Bryan Giemza, director of the Southern Historical Collection, said the Heaney collection has been a draw for literary scholars.
“It definitely put us on the map,” he said. “People are fascinated by Irish literature.”
But the ceremony commemorated Heaney’s personality as much as his poetry.
“He’s like everyone’s favorite uncle,” English professor George Lensing said. “I found him always ready and eager to discuss his poems.”
Lensing, who organized the event, said he hoped it would be a chance for students, more than professors, to learn about the poet.
“I thought this would be a good occasion not just to celebrate Heaney but to celebrate poetry,” Lensing said.
Giemza read “Postcript,” a poem from one of Heaney’s anthologies published in 1996.
“I picked one from ‘The Spirit Level’ for those who can’t be here with us but who are with us in spirit — perhaps the great poet, himself,” he said.
It’s a sentiment that resonated with the commencement address Heaney gave in the same year.
“From here on, the mark of the tar is upon all of us, academically and indelibly,” Heaney said on that day. “Let us rejoice in that, because now we fare forth as Tar Heels of the mind, and the world where we are to make our tarry mark in lies all before us.”