Meredith Moment: Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney Visits Meredith College

Acclaimed Poet Seamus Heaney, who received the 1995 Nobel Prize in literature, visited Meredith College in October 1998. Heaney died on August 30, 2013, at age 74. Professor of English Rebecca Duncan shared the following remembrance of Heaney and his impact on the Meredith College community.

The passing of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney on August 30 was felt deeply by those who attended his 1998 reading at Meredith. Several thousand listeners filled the McIver Amphitheater on that warm and sunny October afternoon, and Heaney read generously from his growing body of work. He read again to a more intimate group the next morning, and over the course of three days he signed every book put before him and answered every question or comment that came his way. When someone commented on his patient explanations of rhythm, he said, “I was a teacher before I was a poet.” We had to pull him away from a reception to make his flight.

To honor his visit, graphic design students created broadsides of the poem “Whinlands.”  The winning design, by Kristine Pelzer, has become a sought-after Heaney artifact in several countries. North Carolina’s finest authors, from Reynolds Price to Lee Smith, gathered for a pig-pickin’ at the Page Walker House in Cary.  Heaney’s poetry and his gentle “feet on the ground” humility made a mark on us all. It was easy to think that some small part of him was ours, and the feeling returned with each new volume he published, especially the acclaimed translation of Beowulf in 1999.

These events sprang from the imagination of Betty Adcock, poet-in-residence at Meredith at the time. They were supported by the Mary Lynch Johnson chair of English and the English Department. Betty tells another story of an even earlier Raleigh connection with Heaney. The Harvard scholar and poet Helen Vendler visited Meredith in the mid-90s, and Betty took her antique-shopping at Cameron Village. Professor Vendler bought a small spirit level as a gift to Heaney, her colleague at Harvard. Not long afterwards, the world received a book of Heaney poems entitled The Spirit Level (1996). It was one more way to think of him as ours.

Melyssa Allen

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