Noli timere: do not be afraid.
At first, the above might sound more like a quotation from the Bible than the last words of a Nobel laureate poet, and indeed perhaps famed Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) intended the connection.
Last week marked the three-year anniversary of Heaney’s death.
During his tenure at Harvard University as the Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory from 1985-1997, Heaney taught a workshop course, taken by University of Dallas English professor Dr. Andrew Osborn, then a junior.
“The chances were very much against you for getting into the workshop,” Osborn said. “[Heaney] was very discriminating. He didn’t choose you based on your promise … but on whether he could work with you.”
There were nine other students in the workshop with Osborn. Three of these were undergraduates, some of whom were not actually affiliated with Harvard but merely lived in Cambridge.
“That was one of the greatest advantages [of the workshop],” Osborn said. “You had these really impressive people that you actually wanted to read your poems.”
The workshop course met once a week for three hours, during which time the students would receive critiques from Heaney and each other.
“He would doodle on our poems,” Osborn said. “He’d draw grape clusters and flowers on mine.”
Since Heaney was working on his translation of “Beowulf” while teaching the workshop, his first assignment for the course was to write a modern English translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem “Dream of the Rood.”
“I didn’t like it as an assignment,” Osborn said. “I didn’t think I knew how to do justice to it.”
Osborn said one of the most important pieces of advice Heaney gave him during the workshop was not to settle in his poetry.
“I already had an aesthetic or a sort of poetics that I was already loyal to,” Osborn said.
Heaney advised him against this kind of early-career complacency.
In addition to helping Osborn publish his first poem, “Helianthus,” in “Erato,” now the “Harvard Review” in 1990, Heaney introduced Osborn to a number of significant poets.
“I used to hang out in the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, and I’m sitting here, skateboard in tow, and [Heaney] comes in with Ted Hughes, one of his best friends, and introduces me to him,” Osborn said.
Another of Heaney’s important contributions to Osborn’s career was writing him letters of recommendation for his application to the M.F.A. program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the most prestigious in the country.
“If you have a letter of recommendation from someone about to win the Nobel, it certainly can’t hurt,” Osborn said.
All the same, the poetic influences Osborn encountered at Iowa were “diametrically opposed,” to the poetics of Heaney, he said—that is, much less formal and much more avant-garde.
“I was trying to straddle this huge chasm between Heaney and [my main professor], Jorie Graham,” Osborn said. “It was hard, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It keeps me from being a Heaney poet or a Graham poet, while attracting me to the sensibilities of both.”
Besides being one of Osborn’s professors, Heaney also served as one of the readers of his undergraduate thesis, written under the direction of relative newcomer poet Lucie Brock-Broido.
“[Heaney] was kind of away when I would have wanted to work with him,” Osborn said.
“He gave me a lower grade than the other guy [Michael Blumenthal], but I think he was more insightful,” Osborn said, looking over a copy of Heaney’s evaluation of his thesis.
Osborn and Heaney met one last time at a reading the latter gave at the American Academy in Rome.
“It was one of his last public readings,” Osborn said. “He didn’t know he was going to die … the Irish embassy right next door to the academy had a party afterwards, and I sort of worked my way through the crowds to shake his hand one last time — well, I didn’t know it was one last time.”
Following his death, Queen’s University in Belfast, home to the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, held a conference on Heaney’s work, attended by a group of UD graduate students and Osborn himself, who was nearing the end of his time teaching in Rome.
“It was just a fantastic commemoration of his life and work,” Osborn said.