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Shamrocks and Salad Days

Seamus Heaney is a generous man by nature and by principle; perhaps sometimes too much so for his own good. He has written a humorous, yet wrenching poem about divided domestic and professional responsibilities, “An Afterwards.” The poem, spoken from the viewpoint of the poet’s wife, equates the poet’s high minded vocation (“who wears the bays…whose is the life most dedicated and exemplary”?) with careerism, and then mocks careerism as a sin. The poet has been damned to the ninth circle for letting books come first and not oftener walking “the twilight with me and your children.” For this his punishment is to be backbitten for eternity by a rival poet, “some maker gaffs me in the neck.”

But Seamus has never been a careerist, at least as I have known him. He has been like his model, W.B. Yeats, a force for living literature, a teacher and an enabler of fellow writers, whether writers of indominatable Irishry, or of international situations. Having himself earned the opportunity, he has been gladly willing to “give the other man (and woman) a hand up.” He writes in the essay, “Yeats as an Example?”: “For all the activity and push of the enterprise, the aim of the poet and of the poetry is finally to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole, and the spirit of our ages is sympathetic to that democratic urge.”

His favors to Ploughshares literary magazine deserve particular mention, and most probably exceed the list of which I am personally aware; that is: Seamus as the subject of a feature interview by James Randall in Ploughshares 5/3 (along with new poems), then Seamus as guest editor of Ploughshares 6/1, and later again of 10/1; Seamus as the featured reader at three different fundraisers for the magazine; and finally Seamus as a trustee and then as trustee-emeritus at the point when Ploughshares was acquired by Emerson College. In all instances, contributor, editor, reader, and trustee, he served as an unpaid volunteer, as did we all. He honored us, I feel, in recognizing and taking part in Ploughshares as a collective effort “to be of service.”

I first met Seamus as the friend of Peter O’Malley, who co-founded and co-directed Ploughshares with me, beginning in 1970; they were friends from Ireland, presumably Dublin, where Heaney had moved in 1972. Peter from the earliest days of Ploughshares, from its origins in the Plough and Stars pub in Cambridge (where Peter had been bartender and one of several investors in the bar), had travelled back to Dublin with copies of the magazine and sought to enlist Irish poets as contributors, among them Desmond O’Grady, John Montague, Thomas Kinsella, Hayden Murphy, Derek Mahon, and Seamus. This was during the height of the troubles between North (Seamus’s native Derry and Belfast) and South (his residence in Dublin).

There had been, of course, decades of regular literary commerce between Harvard and Dublin in overlapping careers and social circles. The writer Fanny Howe, daughter of Mark Howe (Dean of Harvard Law School) and Molly Howe (nee Manning, of Dublin), was one of the early Ploughshares editors and a personage in younger literary Cambridge. Molly Howe, in turn, was a passionate supporter of The Poet’s Theater, and of its Irish model, founded by Yeats, The Abbey Theater. The curator of the Lamont Poetry Room at Harvard, John Sweeney, had cultivated Irish poets; as had his successors, Robert Fitzgerald and Stratis Haviaras. Robert Lowell developed a fondness for Ireland during this time. Lowell had become interested in Ploughshares because of Frank Bidart, his close friend, who edited an issue in 1975. Lowell and Heaney, I gathered became acquainted in Ireland; Heaney says in his 1979 Ploughshares interview: “anytime he was over in Ireland with Caroline in Castletown, we met them. There was a certain trust and intimacy”. Heaney also admired Richard Wilbur, and Peter had married Wilbur’s daughter, Ellen, just after we started Ploughshares.

Aside from the connection through Peter’s friendship, among the earlier Ploughshares editors and friends, James Randall, then chairman of Emerson’s writing program, had been interested in Irish poets, and had attempted to bring Heaney’s friend and fellow Belfast poet, Derek Mahon to Emerson College as poet-in-residence. He had also been reading Heaney with interest and when Heaney arrived at Harvard to teach each spring semester, Randall interviewed him for Ploughshares 5/3, which had for its cover an original monotype portrait of Heaney by Michael Mazur; this portrait, incidentally, given its sinister leer, was variously described as “a potato with two slits,” or as a portrait of Heaney as a bog person. The interview succinctly described the literary provinces of Heaney’s art, and served to introduce them to ours; the substance of Heaney’s “tradition,” like an ambassador’s portfolio, would be repeated in the first national reviews of Field Work and later of Preoccupations and Poems 1965-1975, first in the New York Times Book Review, then in Time. Suddenly the machinery of media recognition had smiled on Seamus and before long friends were referring to Famous Seamus.

It still seems a marvel to me how he protected the genuineness and privacy of his art, kept and has kept unswervingly to the writing, while dealing with the pressures of a visible, public career. Similarly amazing how he maintained all aspects of his integrity, as a family man, a friend, a teacher–and as an Irishman, the pride of Irish-Americans and a rallying icon for readers and nonreaders alike in venues such as the Eire Society.

At Peter’s urging, Seamus agreed to edit a special “Transatlantic Issue” of Ploughshares, beginning in the fall of 1979. Abroad for the year, he would solicit work to represent the contemporary tradition he had described in his interview. Though the manuscript arrived late in the mails, after worried international phone calls between our first managing editor, Joyce Peseroff, and Seamus, the assemblage was remarkable. We rushed through the typesetting, proofreading, and layout, got a cover image from a book of ancient Irish art; then harangued our printer, Edwards Brothers in Ann Arbor to meet their 21 day production deadline. They proved late–subscribers, booksellers, and librarians were all querying, since here it was late May–and then finally the printer informed us that they had shipped the issue. One, two weeks passed and still it failed to arrive. We put a trace in for Roadways, the shipping company, and after another week, Roadways declared the shipment, roughly one ton of cartons stacked on three wooden skids, lost. We threatened to sue and Edwards Brothers was about to push the button for a reprint at the shipper’s expense, when Roadways declared the shipment found somewhere in Illinois. Because of the label “Ploughshares,” it had been misdelivered to a farm implements wholesaler. We received it in early June and rushed to distribute copies on both sides of the Atlantic. By September, 1980, it had sold out and we were desperately hoping for returns.

From the beginning, Ploughshares had been working to attract new readers. Given the support from one of the first “Literary Magazine Development” grants from the NEA (1978-81), we set out to play on the cultural opposition of Irish, Catholic, and Boston College on the one side and Yankee, Protestant, and Harvard on the other. In terms of a prospective audience, this meant summoning a monied, cultural and social bloc of Irish American lawyers, doctors and businessmen, which normally remained separate from literary Boston. We mounted a benefit reading series, renting Sanders Theatre as a non-profit, and combining Robert Lowell with John McGahern, Richard Wilbur with Brian Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop with Mary Lavin (though Bishop died unexpectedly the night before and we proceeded with Friends of Bishop reading in her memory). Peter then sought a downtown Boston location and organized a black-tie benefit in the Parker House, featuring his friend, Siobhan McKenna, who was touring a one-woman show, The Branchy Tree, a medley of passages from Yates, Synge, Joyce, O’Casey and others. Though barely meeting costs, this otherwise brilliant event did succeed in friend-raising. At a lower ticket price and in a more populist location, the Cambridge Boat House, we had standing room only for Seamus’s first Ploughshares reading, 2/28/81, and after costs, raised more than $4500. Blocs of tickets had been underwritten by some of Peter’s McKenna friends, while our earlier, literary constituencies turned out in full force.

Novelist Thomas Flanagan, who had appeared in the “Transatlantic Issue” with a rediscovery essay on Benedict Kiely, formally introduced Seamus, who stood at a music stand for lack of a podium, and with our Ploughshares banner behind him, began by quipping that many of us had most likely never touched a real plough, but he had, and then read from the Glanmore sonnets in Field Work: “Vowels ploughed into other, opened ground,/ Each verse returning like the plough turned round.” A grand success. Joyce Peseroff and I had come to know Seamus directly through the editing process and he treated us with level recognition, comprehending, artist to artist, I felt, as we comprehended apart from and behind the social commotion.

Our friends, patrons, readers, all lamented and yet romanticized the element of sacrifice in perpetuating Ploughshares, how it operated always on a shoestring. By 1984, the year, finally I was hired full-time at Emerson, my first and only full-time, paid job, the shoestring both for Peter and for me had frayed to a filament. Life was catching up with us, marriages, children. Seamus, firmly ensconced at Harvard as the Boylston Professor, was in Cambridge that year, and had edited for us long distance again, this time an issue selected entirely from unsolicited work, 10/1: “Occasionally,” he wrote in his introduction, “the plough broke new ground, but its usual work was to plough up the old ground and criss-cross its own furrows.” He invited Peter and me to his quarters in Adams House, and we talked about somehow getting Boston College to sponsor the magazine. I said something at the time to Peter about my having “gotten my nut, but you still have to get yours,” meaning some form of full-time livelihood. And I remember Seamus’s sharp glance.

In the next few years, the toll of lives put Peter and me increasingly at odds. Operating primarily on public grants, we had been obliged to organize, legally, not as a partnership, but as a charity, with the two of us as co-directors overseen by trustees. The trustees were, after a fashion, Peter’s friends, Bernard McCabe (critic and former English Department chairperson at Tufts, who admired Peter’s musical compositions), Daniel Aaron (close friend of Peter’s father-in-law, Richard Wilbur), and Barry Spacks (also a Wilbur friend, for some years in absentia in California). Seamus agreed informally to join this number, but had not as yet been formally elected.

Meanwhile, Emerson College was seeking to negotiate an affiliation. They had been subsidizing my volunteer time in operating the magazine by granting me course releases, and the writing program, as created by James Randall, already overlapped with the Ploughshares community.

Peter had come in and met with me and the new Writing Division Chair, Richard Duprey, and had behaved cordially, saying that the Ploughshares board would like a formal letter of interest from Emerson, which Duprey promptly sent. Then Peter dropped out of touch for nearly a year, while I continued to build the fiscal base and operations of the magazine; and while, at Emerson, Duprey having moved to fill a vacancy as Acting Graduate Dean, I worked as Acting Chair of the Writing Division, and the President pressured me directly for progress on the Ploughshares matter.

Some time before, the magazine had moved from my second bedroom into a rented a store front office nearby in Watertown. The budget had grown enough to support our first managing editor, Joyce Peseroff, who had been coming in two or three times a week for $4000. When after two years, she left to write, teach, and to start a family, she was followed by Suzannah Lee, for $6000, and then by Jennifer Rose, who boosted the job to $9000. Each managing editor, working day by day with me, became another witness to the realities of how Ploughshares survived and operated.

I called and left messages for Peter, and as the urgency mounted of a grant report to be signed, or an application, or some corporate document, I might catch him for a moment at his apartment in Cambridge, but we rarely spoke or met. I wrote to him, finally, that we needed to reply to College’s statement of interest in Ploughshares before the end of June, 1987. He had by this time promised to consult with his friend, John Taylor Williams, as our pro bono attorney, and to send the college a letter. But the promised letter never arrived and at the end of July, I wrote him: “We can’t keep not communicating and are overdue with a businesslike response to Emerson.” By mid-August, I wrote him tersely that I assumed his silence constituted consent and that I was going forward with the business of the organization. I would keep him informed. By November, in a friendly tone, I wrote him in an update: “the next emergency is to sit down with the lawyers and worked our a reorganization that will allow us to proceed with corporate fundraising and/or affiliation.” Again, we needed to expand the board, and “we have to address the reality of how the organization operates and can operate in the future…” I didn’t see “the co-directorship as a reality,” and recommended a true overseeing board of a trustees and an Executive Director. Ploughshares couldn’t survive another year if we continued “begging or ignoring these issues.” Still no response from Peter.

At this point, I tried contacting our trustees, Daniel Aaron, Bernard McCabe, Barry Spacks, and Seamus. McCabe was in England, Spacks in California, but Aaron and Heaney were both at Harvard. Seamus met me for lunch, and after hearing my concerns, suggested that I write to McCabe, which I did. Then Seamus met me again to go over the draft of my letter, and to soften its rancor. I outlined the Ploughshares situation as honestly as I could, appealing now to the trustees because Peter had been absent and had refused to resolve issues central to the survival of the magazine. I described earlier attempts to expand the board, which Peter appeared to view as a move to “get him out.” I described my frustration at Peter’s unilateral actions in the name of Ploughshares in matters where I would have had an opinion and informed concern, namely his earlier approaches to Boston College and Brown. Now we had a letter from Emerson, which called for a response.

McCabe wrote back, agreeing that Ploughshares faced an administrative crisis and offered to come over in May for an “extraordinary meeting of the trustees.” I sent a memo to all parties, including Peter, again detailing our problems, and, with Seamus’s generous help, calling for a meeting at Seamus’s house at 10 Kirkland Place on May 8. The afternoon of the meeting was sunny and humid. Seamus and his wife, Marie, offered everyone drinks. After our official meeting, we would have a gracious sit-down dinner. Bernard, Dan Aaron, Seamus, and Peter spoke casually about Irish composers and about the tenor, John O’Sullivan, whose music Seamus was playing from a tape. Eventually we stepped out onto a screened in porch with a long dining table, where places had been set, each with a yellow pad and pencil, a xeroxed agenda (handwritten by Seamus), and a glass of water. Ellen Wilbur, as Clerk, kept the minutes. We managed to settle the resignation by phone of Barry Spacks, and the election of Seamus, and of Peter’s lawyer friend, Ike Williams, also called by phone from meeting, as new trustees. We all promised to submit additional suggestions for later action. McCabe was Chairperson of the trustees. Seamus and Bernard would write a letter from the trustees to Emerson; Ike Williams would serve pro-bono as the Ploughshares counsel.

The trustees’ letter was sent the next day to Emerson and replied to now by John Zacharis, as Emerson’s Senior Vice President. He wrote back that he had hired “a consulting attorney for the college,” Jim Samels to draft some ideas for achieving “greater exposure for the college” in sponsoring Ploughshares, without the college assuming part-ownership or control of the magazine.

Samels began meeting with me in the fall of 1988. I met with Peter in September in a restaurant on Charles Street. He told me that Bernard and Seamus (back in Dublin at this point) were coming over later in the fall and I should write them that the Emerson proposal was forthcoming. If the deal went through, Peter said he would sever his connection with the magazine. That he was hiring a lawyer, and I should too, to “determine a settlement of his personal interests.”

Samels was manic, eccentric and tenacious. Zacharis had chosen him, given Peter’s stalling, for his street smarts. He would call me at any hour at home, asking for ideas, responses to ideas, and pressing me for progress reports. Often he called on his car phone, which would go dead as he drove through a tunnel or overpass; often, grunting with exertion, he would call from his exercise bike. He seemed amused by my mendicant idealism and enjoyed boasting of his own good life for contrast.  Despite his fast talking, high pressure manner, I believed he understood the special value of Ploughshares, and that he promised the only realistic, foreseeable resolution to the Ploughshares wars, short of killing the magazine. The proposal we discussed was for a trial year, leading to a full-scale “buy-out” rather than a sponsorship. By early January, 1989, Emerson was proposing a $30,000 cash subvention in exchange for presence on the Ploughshares board, free advertising, and the addition of “at Emerson College” to our logos. Then at the end of the year, Emerson would have first refusal on a “buy out,” perhaps in the $100,000 range, which would go towards an endowment. Faculty course releases could help fund staff positions. Jennifer Rose at this point submitted a friendly letter of resignation, and I hired my former student Don Lee in her place, “since he has been gradually groomed to that role.”

At Emerson, Richard Duprey had returned as Division Chair and my application for tenure was being reviewed–strictly a separate issue from the Ploughshares negotiations, I was told. I was distressed by a split vote in the faculty, but by March my tenure had been granted. Samels met alone with Peter in early May. Emerson was pressing for a resolution that could be announced at graduation. Peter made verbal demands that echoed his earlier claims; he was seeking a continuing salary and a title as well as a pay off. He stalled well past the graduation deadline, then finally sent a letter in which he claimed that the Ploughshares trustees were his appointees; that he had the “sole authority to represent Ploughshares“; that we already had two other offers of affiliation; that he had “led” the magazine for twenty years; and that in any deal, all editorial decisions must be the province of “the editors, DeWitt Henry and Peter O’Malley,” and that he, Peter, must be acknowledged “as working head of the magazine.” When Samels asked for my response, I suggested designating Peter as “Founding Publisher” on the masthead; I also conceded to a fifty/fifty split of up to $15,000 settlement for work in the past, an amount to be raised only from the sale of back inventory. Samels replied formally to Peter with these terms, as well as with the substance of Emerson’s proposal (which was a pledge of $250,000 over a five year period in exchange for a full transfer of Ploughshares‘s assets and rights to Emerson). Peter again stalled.

In the meantime, on the Emerson front, Duprey resigned as Division Chair, effective August 1; he supported my appointment as Chair, and the faculty duly approved.

In July I wrote my own ultimatum to our trustees. I was ready to resign and, if necessary, start a new magazine at Emerson, unless: 1) I was empowered as Executive Director, 2) I served in a well-organized structure, overseen by a working board, 3) we had means to support paid staff and to continue building our fiscal base. As I understood the Emerson proposal, it accommodated these conditions. In addition, as tenured faculty and as incoming Chair of the Writing division, I was in a position to make much more possible than these terms alone suggested. I then contacted Heaney, Aaron, and McCabe separately by phone and learned that none of them had heard of or seen Emerson’s letter of June 30 to Peter until it arrived appended by me to my memo; that each now approved of the Emerson proposal; and that Seamus and Bernard would send personal letters to Peter to that effect.

Things got crazier and crazier. I had a call at home from one Gerald Gross, a Vice President at BU, who said he was a friend of Richard Wilbur and of Ike Williams, and that he hoped to meet with me to discuss BU’s acquisition of Ploughshares. I said flatly that the trustees of Ploughshares had already approved of an arrangement with Emerson, and any further discussion concerning BU would be inappropriate. Samels and I now did some investigating, and when it became clear that Gerald Gross was serious, that Peter had spoken with him, that my friend Sven Birkerts had been called in for a meeting and offered the salaried Executive Director position (Birkerts called to tell me he had turned it down), that Gross so far was acting on his own and had not yet approached Silber, that no one in the English Department or Creative Writing Program had yet been consulted, and that the endowment figure being proposed by Gross was one million dollars; when all this became clear, Samels then threatened to sue BU for “interference with Emerson’s advantageous relationship with Ploughshares.” Negotiations were dropped. Internally, Gross was embarrassed. Later, in mid-September, Ike Williams sent a formal letter to the Ploughshares Trustees, angrily resigning. He explained that in his limited, pro-bono role as an advisor, given Emerson’s lack of assurance of tenure for me and its hype about using Ploughshares to build a commercial writing program, he had encouraged Peter “to test the waters at BU.” He did not like “being bullied and threatened”; did not like “my friends and clients being bullied and threatened”; did not approve of the Emerson proposal.

Since Bernard McCabe was in London and Seamus now in Dublin, Dan Aaron in his Harvard office served to represent the will of the trustees and was given power of attorney. As friends to Peter, all parties were distressed by their involvement, yet all remained generously concerned and responsible. Samels met with Dan Aaron. Dan then conferred with Seamus and Bernard by transatlantic phone, and on September 20 the three of them agreed to accept the Emerson proposal.

Once the transfer was official, I wrote to Ellen that I was sorry for the strife that Ploughshares had caused. There was no answer at the time, and neither she nor Peter appeared at our inaugural Ploughshares at Emerson party, January 22, 1990, to celebrate “the journal’s contribution to contemporary letters, its new status as an Emerson publication, and its aspirations for the Nineties.”

Peter and I had no contact. I heard that he was separating from Ellen. He signed his first Ploughshares check from Emerson over to Ellen. Once the Ploughshares office had moved to campus, he called Don Lee and stopped in to collect a full back file of the magazine. I ran into him there and we had a cordial exchange. Having separated from Ellen, he had an apartment with a bay window right across from 0 Marlborough, the Emerson dorm where I now went for lunch. He traveled a lot, and had another apartment in Munich. He’d come into some money. He had a German partner in Munich and they were acquiring rights to foreign films for distribution in the U.S. They’d just bought to rights to Felix the Cat. I helped carry the boxed back issues out to the front of the building, so he could come around and load them into his car.

In connection with Associated Writing Programs, I staged and used the Ploughshares friendships to stage, a benefit reading entitled “Love Sick” on Valentine’s Day, 1990. As we had in the heyday of Ploughshares benefits, Stratis Haviaras helped me to enlist Seamus as a reader and the Sanders Theatre rental. The readers besides Seamus were Gerry Stern, Jayne Anne Phillips, Grace Paley, and Sharon Olds. We had a terrific turnout. Seamus’s favor, however, was to Stratis and to me personally. He was finished otherwise in any connection with Ploughshares, partly out of deference to Peter’s feelings, partly out of having done his turn. He’d had enough, thank you.

In mid-March, the Ploughshares trustees officially resigned and elected Jim McPherson, Carol Smith, and Frank Bidart as their successors.

Shortly thereafter, late in the spring, 1990, Seamus read with Dick Wilbur at Harvard to benefit Stratis’s Woodberry Poetry Room. I bought my ticket and I sat high up in the Sanders Audience with a sad, sad sense of deja vu and dissociation. There was Peter in the front row. From my distance: there my friends, there the literary mob, there Ellen, there Peter and Ellen’s son, Gabriel. Our association of twenty years was over. We weren’t speaking. A few left over old time Ploughshares patrons, like guests from Gatsby’s parties showing up after his death, apparently still hadn’t heard, and thought this was a Ploughshares event. Others avoided hellos, eye contact, or any evidence of Ploughshares solidarity.

My last sight of Peter was after we had moved to 180 Tremont and I was still Chairperson. I was walking back from an early appointment at Emerson’s administrative building along Newbury and caught sight of him having breakfast presumably at a sidewalk table at 29 Newbury, a stylish bar and restaurant. He was reading Variety. He wore dark glasses and had moussed his hair to look like Robert DeNiro. I didn’t stop and he didn’t see me.

My last sight of Seamus and of Marie Heaney was at a benefit reading at Radcliffe several years ago for The Poets’ Theatre, organized by a former Ploughshares editor and friend, David Gullette. Seamus read with John McGahern. We all had aged, but in the midst of distraction, he fixed me with a look of instant comprehension, woe, and measure–a ninth circle look–pressing my hand: “How are you,” he asked.

  1. Stratis Haviaras on

    Fine memoir by ole deWitt – and useful.

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