Sunday, 15 September 2013

Two Great Humans Die at 74

I’m a celeb hater at heart, except when two such exit on successive days: Seamus Heaney, followed by David Frost. I was teaching in London the summer of 1968 when I thought I could expand my International English shtick by going to the Belfast Festival and taping the North Ireland poems who were recently hot. I was thinking of Paul Muldoon and James Simmons. The BF manager generously provided a poet to tape with the Uher NPR had lent me to supply national art stories. We waited for 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 paranoidly believed I might be getting a Nobody, Who, (as Emily Dickinson averred in her too many isolated minutes). He started with 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 “Digging”, since that very minute to this one were sharing, it’s my alltime Number One. 

It praises the ecological skill of his father’s and grandfather’s spades. He vows to make a poet’s pencil his digging utensil. The word “serendipity” immediately became my favorite experience. He was 38, me 41. I bonded instanter. It became clear in our exchange of letters 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 X-wife, who wanted to avoid an expensive PA 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 went to Penn. 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”, “starring” Seamus. Bright and early the next day, we trained to D.C. where he 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, “Is this where they decided about equal education?” He was my pal for life!

Next day, we flew to Columbia, S.C. where he wanted to interrogate the recently hot new poet, James Dickey. To his eternal shame, he declined to comply. No matter, my recent Penn colleague, Morse Peckham, was now their University’s highest prize. He led the almost all gay English professors to a party he would never forget. Up at the crack of dawn bus to us to Atlanta. I booked him into the prestige hotel, the Peachtree Plaza, even had dinner with him and an old girlfriend, in case he craved company. Then he read to the NCTE folks, fit audience though few. The next day he flew to San Francisco, where his new prestige there would inevitably lead to his Nobel in 1995. What a sweet week!

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 on “That Was The Week That Was”’s NBC set. 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. 

I had been harassing John Fisher’s Modern Language Association in 1967 for its ignorance about the place of the newer media on their scholarly agenda. I talked them into having a seminar on satire, backed by 9 (the muse’s magic number) of professors. The nine “TWAS 3” freaks would eat in General Sarnoff’s office (he was the NBC CEO) while we watched that week’s “TWAS 3”. After the show, all the talent would rise to our heights and palaver the night away. (I confess I had intentions upon their jazz singer, Nancy Ames, but it came to lesser than Naught!) 

Incidentally, there was scuttlebutt that the only color TV set that worked in all America was his! Before I could say Webster Three, David was hair-assing Philip Gove, W3 editor for letting “fuck” and other too worldly words into the third edition. Now Gove was one of those 9 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! I had trouble finding my Hilton suite across Sixth Avenue from NBC HQ. Whoosh. What one won’t do in the name of scholarship!

Which brings us to the next summer when I was teaching in London. Frost invited me to his club, where he duly apologized for being so ignorantly know-it-all. But I was in the middle of my conviction that Beatles were going to be the leaders into a civilized egalitarianism. (Honestly! I didn’t hold it very long!) 

Indeed, Mary and I planned a perfect Xmas jaunt into Paris. Notre Dame, Mont St. Michel, Versailles. As Mary and I were about to make a new cultural maneuver, the teenies revolted. They HAD to be in London for a film they couldn’t miss. Desolately, we returned the rented car and sadly awaited the next ferry. The film? “A Hard Day’s Night” The twerps were right! And so it goes!

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

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