Two who crossed my path: Heaney and Frost, remembered

I remember Seamus Heaney and David Frost

4 minute read
I'm a celebrity hater at heart, except when two such exit on successive days: Seamus Heaney, followed by David Frost.

I was teaching summer in London 1968 when I thought I could expand my International English shtick by traveling to the Belfast Festival and taping the North Ireland poets who were recently hot. I was thinking of Paul Muldoon and James Simmons. The Festival manager generously provided a poet for me to tape. We awaited the door to open.

Suddenly, a very rural-looking guy (I swear I sniffed cowshit on his boots!) identified himself as Seamus Heaney. Who? I paranoiacally believed I might be getting a Nobody, Who (as Emily Dickinson averred in her too many isolated minutes).

Digging with a pencil

Heaney started by reciting a Paul Muldoon and then a James Simmons. Poetic enough, but hardly smashing the students who awaited my tape back in London. Then he knocked me out with his own Digging, in which he praises the ecological skill of his father's and grandfather's spades and vows to make a poet's pencil his digging utensil.

The word "serendipity" immediately became my favorite. I bonded instantly. In our subsequent exchange of letters he revealed that he would soon be musing at Harvard and Berkeley. I had recently returned from Juarez with a cheap Mexican divorce, inflicted on my humbled soul by my ex-wife, who wanted to avoid an expensive Pennsylvania divorce based on mutual adultery.

I talked Seamus into spending a week along the Eastern seaboard en route to the National Council of Teachers annual convention in Atlanta. Our first stop was Trenton State, where a goofy Irishman named Fred Kiley had replaced me when I joined the Penn faculty. It was a knockout read.

The next day I showed him the cultural highlights of Philly, ending at the Jewish Cultural Center, where I had arranged the Belfast TV documentary on "The Troubles," "staring" Seamus.

Dickey declines

Bright and early the next day, we trained to Washington, where Heaney was enrolled in the Poetry Center at the Library of Congress. He demanded to gawk next door at the architectural glories of our Supreme Court. He goggled joyously. Suddenly, in a quiet voice almost too almost too soft to comprehend, he asked, "Is this where they decided about equal education?" He was my pal for life.

Next day we flew to Columbia, S.C., where Seamus wanted to interrogate the recently hot new poet, James Dickey. To his eternal shame, Dickey declined to comply. No matter: Heaney led the almost-all-gay English professors to a party Dickey would never forget.

Up at the crack of dawn to bus us to Atlanta. I booked Seamus into the prestigious Peachtree Plaza hotel. The next day he flew to San Francisco, where his new prestige would inevitably lead to his Nobel at 1995. What a sweet week!

Objecting to 'fuck'

The day after Seamus died, Sir David Frost folded. Strangely, I had just discovered his weekly TV program on Al Jazeera. He was no longer the kid I had met years earlier on the NBS set of "That Was The Week That Was." But his Saturday morning became a "must see." I swear, those-hour long conversations should end up in the Library of Congress. Add his Nixon confrontations and you've got classics in both TV and cultural history.

In 1967 I had been harassing John Fisher's Modern Language Association for its ignorance concerning the place of the newer media on their scholarly agenda. I talked the group into holding a seminar on satire, backed by nine (the muse's magic number) professors. The nine "That Was" freaks would eat in the office of NBC's chief executive, Robert Sarnoff while we watched that week's edition of "TW3."

After the show, all the talent would rise to our heights and palaver the night away. David was hair-assing Philip Gove, editor of Webster's Dictionary, for letting "fuck" and other too worldly words into the third edition. Now, Gove was one of those nine musers, and he wasn't about to take insults from a run of the mill entertainer— so they miffed and they muffed until fatigue or too much of the General's booze incapacitated them.

The next summer, when I was teaching in London, Frost invited me to his club, where he duly apologized for having been so ignorantly know-it-all.

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