The literary world continues to mourn the loss of Seamus Heaney, Irish poet and Nobel Prize Laureate, who died in Dublin last week, aged 74. If you haven’t already done so, you may want to take a look at the eulogy written by Heaney’s longtime friend, fellow Irish poet Paul Muldoon. Heaney now lies buried in the soil of county Derry, which he immortalized in many of his poems, including his most famous, “Digging.” The poem ends with the following lines:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
The PRISM editors have done a bit of digging themselves this week, going through the archives to find a pair of poems by Seamus Heaney, published in the magazine back in 1972. The poems are “Wedding Day” and “Mother of the Groom” (“Wedding Day” also appeared in PRISM’s 50th anniversary edition.) At the time, the editor of the magazine was Jacob Zilber, who had co-founded PRISM 13 years before—Mr. Zilber passed away last year.
Heaney was already a very well-established poet by the time he published those two poems in PRISM, but he was far from the international recognition he would later achieve, culminating with his Nobel Prize nomination in 1995.
More recently, in 1996, PRISM also managed to publish a translation by Seamus Heaney of the Irish poem “The Yellow Bittern,” originally written by the 17th-18th century poet Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. As you can imagine, this was a major event for the magazine, since Heaney was now held as one of the world’s most prominent writers.
Sara O’Leary, author of When You Were Small, was editor of PRISM international at the time. She’s written to us to explain how she managed to get the piece:
During my stint as PRISM Editor I pulled off the greatest coup of my editorial career. I published a poem translated by the late Seamus Heaney.
This fact, as proud as I may be to relate it, has absolutely nothing to do with me and everything to do with the generosity of two men: Seamus Heaney himself, and his old classmate from Queen’s University, Belfast, Professor, poet, and translator George McWhirter. In the time that I was at UBC, PRISM international was overseen by George and Keith Maillard.
When during my tenure George McWhirter obtained permission for us to publish Seamus Heaney’s translation of “The Yellow Bittern,” it seemed to me that both men were honouring our work as apprentices in the vocation to which they had given their lives. So, while I have no personal memories of Heaney the man to share on the occasion of his passing – other than that of having received a single brief, elegant, and now-cherished letter – I’m pleased to be able to offer this fugitive example of Heaney’s ineffable mastery of the craft that we were all so intent on emulating.
Rest in peace, Mr. Heaney. Your frank, humble voice will be missed.
Sara O’Leary was editor of PRISM in 1996/97. She entered the MFA Writing Program as a prose writer wanting to write plays and went on to write a film script for her thesis. A friend from the program hired her to write about books for the Vancouver Sun where she met a publisher who published her first picture book series. Those picture books brought her to the attention of an agent who has persuaded her to finish a novel. She remains grateful for every bit of help along the way.