Professor Chris Morash who was recently appointed as the Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing at Trinity College Dublin delivered his inaugural lecture on May 22nd last, in the PACCAR Theatre of the Science Gallery, in which he asked: “What are Poets for in a Destitute Time?” The Professorship is named in honour of one of Ireland's greatest poets and Nobel Laureate who had a long standing relationship with Trinity.
Focusing on the work of the late Seamus Heaney, in whose honour the Professorship was created, Professor Morash gave a wide-ranging lecture, addressing the value of poetry. He began by recalling the words of Seamus Heaney himself, who once observed: “Professors of poetry, apologists for it, practitioners of it, from Sir Philip Sidney to Wallace Stevens, all sooner or later are tempted to show how poetry’s existence as a form of art relates to our existence as citizens of society – how it is ‘of present use.’”
Professor Morash began by suggesting that while it may be possible to show that poetry has a practical, even an economic value, there are other ways to understand the value of poetry. With this in mind, Professor Morash suggested looking closely at one of Seamus Heaney’s best-known poems, “A Call”, in which a telephone call to the poet’s father conjures up a momentary sense of loss: “If it were nowadays,/ This is how Death would summon Everyman.” Concentrating on this line, Professor Morash suggested that Heaney’s poems since the late-1980s registered a collapse of religious and historical certainties in Ireland, which in turn have transformed the ways that Irish people experience time. The apparently innocuous phrase, “if it were nowadays”, he suggested, is in fact rich with alternative possibilities for the ways we experience time.
At the heart of Professor Morash’s argument was the claim that during the 1990s, a revolution took place in Irish culture. The eclipse of the big narratives of religion and nationality in Ireland in the 1990s, combined with unprecedented development of communications technologies, transformed the Irish experience of time, he suggested, creating a culture of disenchantment. The years of the early 1990s, before the internet, before mobile phones and satellite television, now seem like another world. This, he suggested, paralleled two earlier moments in Irish history: the Famine of the 1840s, and the Literary Revival of the 1890s, both of which were moments when profound cultural change was accompanied by new communication technologies (the telegraph in the case of the Famine, the telephone, cinema and phonograph, in the case of the Literary Revival).
Seamus Heaney’s poetry of the 1990s both registers, and provides a corrective to this situation, Professor Morash argued, not by succumbing to nostalgia, but by embracing the complexities of the present. “When the past is at best an inefficient burden, and at worst sentimentalised nostalgia,” he told the audience, “the present can only be a disappointment, and the future an extension of that disappointment. That, indeed, would be a destitute time.” Instead, Heaney’s poetry, in its deliberate command of language, “allows us to say ‘if it were nowadays’, and thereby imagine a way of acknowledging the past and projecting a future with the same intensity with which we live the present, in a world temporarily stripped of its banality, temporarily re-enchanted.”
Before the lecture, Professor Morash, and the Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor James Wickham, both acknowledged the role of philanthropy in making possible the new Seamus Heaney Professorship of Irish Writing, paying particular tribute to the generosity of Dr Mark Pigott, KBE, and Dr Martin Naughton, Chair of Glen Dimplex. The new position was established with the philanthropic support of a number of benefactors, most notably Dr Pigott and Dr Naughton.
On the occasion of the inaugural lecture, Dr Pigott introduced Professor Morash, and spoke of his pride at being able to honour Heaney in such an appropriate way. To help mark the occasion, Dr Pigott provided everyone in the audience with a CD of Seamus Heaney reading from his work, recorded for The Poetry Archive.