Seamus Heaney at UMass Lowell, 1981


The Facebook page titled “You Know You’re From Lowell If…” has thousands of members, and sometimes the group “does” history in a crowd-sourcing fashion. For example, somebody will pose a question, and people will jump in with facts and recollections. I tried that recently because I knew poet Seamus Heaney had given a reading at UMass Lowell around 1980, and I wanted to make note of it on this blog. I don’t know why, but I did not go to the reading. I missed him again more recently when he read in Lawrence at the Frost Festival of the Robert Frost Foundation.

Nobody from YKYFLI could find a reference in online issues of the Lowell Sun. Tony Sampas, librarian at UMass Lowell, attended the reading in early 1981 and added that poet Joe Donahue and other members of the Donahue family were there in the auditorium of O’Leary Library (also called Room 222) on the South Campus (the school was called the University of Lowell at the time). Tony wrote: “We were all quite taken by Heaney.” He had started teaching at Harvard University for part of each year in 1979, so he was in the area.

In a separate e-mail, Jeannie Judge of the UMass Lowell Dept. of English told me that she attended the reading and remembered that Lowellian Jim Droney was in the audience. She said her colleague Mary Kramer also attended. Jeannie did not think it was in O’Leary, but rather a smaller room. She speculated that the reading may have been community-sponsored.

Donna Reynolds Savory, who is the conductor of the history-orchestra over at YKYFLI, searched her sources and could not find anything. Tony explained that the Access Newspaper resource does not extend to 1981. A couple of people pointed toward the Sun on microfilm at the Pollard Memorial Library—the UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History would be another place to check film.

In a separate Facebook post, artist Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord shared a Heaney poem, “The Seed Cutters,” that she had done in calligraphy after being inspired by him at the reading. I will ask Susan what else she remembers. In those days, she lived in Billerica and was president of the artists co-op called Art Alive!, which was based in a vacant shop on Merrimack Street where Enterprise Bank has a parking lot today. Susan is a well known maker of artist books and teacher, but in 1981 was best known as a calligrapher. We have been friends and creative collaborators for about 35 years.

Gaylord Heaney

( Artwork by Susan K. Gaylord, reprinted with permission.)

The news of Seamus Heaney’s death brought a vast outpouring of words around the world, especially the English-speaking nations. Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe wrote a wonderful piece about Heaney. It seems that every article quoted Robert Lowell’s praise for Heaney: The most important Irish poet since Yeats. In the late 1970s, I had ordered his hard-to-find collections of poetry from Prince’s Bookstore on Merrimack Street—in particular the Faber and Faber edition of “North.” I was enamored of his use of words, the language palpable at times, all hard consonants and blocky mono-syllables, and the odd Irish term or saying that made the sentence his. He was small and big on the same page, which I liked a lot. Like Frost, it seemed that you “got” the poem on first reading most times, even while knowing there were layers more to unwrap.




4 Responses to Seamus Heaney at UMass Lowell, 1981

  1. Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord says:

    Paul, my recollection is that you were there and we sat together along with Eric Linder and another poet friend of yours. I remember it in a smaller room too and that there was a little reception after which may have been in a different room. Does that sound familiar to you at all? I have a memory of him reading Digging. I am not sure if he read The Seed Cutters. I don’t own a copy of any of his books so I am wondering where I got the text of the poem in those pre-internet days. Perhaps the library. Thanks for sharing The Seed Cutters.

  2. PaulM says:

    Wow. Susan says I was at the reading. I have no memory of this, but if Eric Linder was there, then she must be correct. I will have to check my old journals. How about that? Funny.

  3. Tony Sampas says:

    The poem that Heaney read in Lowell that night that most stands out for me was
    “A Drink of Water.”

    She came every morning to draw water
    Like an old bat staggering up the field:
    The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter
    And slow diminuendo as it filled,
    Announced her. I recall
    Her gray apron, the pocked white enamel
    Of the brimming bucket, and the treble
    Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.
    Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable
    It fell back through her window and would lie
    Into the water set out on the table.
    Where I have dipped to drink again, to be
    Faithful to the admonishment on her cup,
    Remember the Giver fading off the lip.

    I loved the lilt his voice brought to the word “water.” I can hear it even now. Joseph Donahue III was at the reading and attended the event that followed. He reports that it took place at the home of “Lowell University” president John Duff. Many of the Lowell Irish community were there as well as Billy Bulger. A great deal of adulation was heaped upon Heaney but according to Donahue. “He handled it well.”

  4. Paul Marion says:

    I found a photocopy of a Lowell Sun article from February 8, 1982, by reporter Estelle Shanley who was at the reading and filed her story about the reading by Seamus Heaney on Friday, February 5, at the University of Lowell.