Jackie Airhart

English Literature and Economics
“Delighting Inventiveness: Tracing the Poetic Process of Seamus Heaney”

Jackie Airhart

Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning poet who passed away in 2013, delivered a series of lectures while he was a professor at Oxford. In them, he argued that while poetry is a necessary tool to correct societies’ injustices, it also needs to exist for and of itself. Heaney advised that “poetry cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world.” With his admonition to focus on the joy of language in mind, I am planning to explore Heaney’s writing process by tracing the evolution of his work from the initial spark to the final published poems that have received so much acclaim by reviewing his draft manuscripts at the National Library of Ireland. Doing this will allow me to better understand the mind of one of the world’s most beloved poets, as well as allow the chance to test the veracity of his lectures’ declarations by comparing early iterations of poems against final works and testing whether the initial “self-delighting inventiveness” survived the editing process. During and after this research, I will have the added benefit of furthering his influence on my own creative work, where I will emulate elements of his prosody and style; with emphasis on his imagery, consonance, and use of narrative.

Who is your mentor for your research, scholarship, or artistic project? How did you arrange to work with this person?
My adviser is Professor Michael Fallon in the English Department. I took English 273 and English 373 with him (Introduction to Poetry and Intermediate Poetry), and he was my adviser on a creative writing honors project in the English department in 2014-2015. For that honors project, I tried to emulate Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet, in my own poems, and I ended up using the URA to research Heaney’s literary papers. Professor Fallon is known for his study of Heaney and has published essays on him before, so it was a perfect fit.

How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?
It all traced back to the honors project I did. I wanted to write original poetry, and the English Department requires that if you undertake a creative writing project, you also have to pick a poet whose style you admire and do an intense study of their influences and technique. I was not that excited about the extra work at the time—I just wanted to write poems. In retrospect though, it’s a really smart requirement. It gave me the chance to become more knowledgeable about a subject than I ever have been before, and I really saw how my poems improved once I was able to pick apart Heaney’s style and apply it to my own work.

After my honors project was complete, I still wanted to write poetry, and I was completely fascinated by Seamus Heaney and how his poems evolved. I found out that Heaney donated all of his literary papers to the National Library of Ireland (NLI) shortly before he died, and so I applied for the URA to go study them in Dublin and analyze how his poems change between the initial drafts, to the final publication.

How did you hear about the Undergraduate Research Award (URA) program?
I heard about the URA when I went to an English Department of Majors meeting. Professor Lindsay DiCuirci mentioned that you could use it to do archive research overseas, and I had just heard about Heaney’s donation to the NLI, so it clicked in my head.

Was the application difficult to do?
The application was relatively easy. I noticed on the website that a former winner was in one of my classes, so I asked her for advice and looked at how she did her application to get a feel for what I needed to cover.

How much did your mentor help you with the application?
A lot, we had some meetings to discuss it and Professor Fallon gave me edits on what needed to be clearer. He also helped me set up a meeting with Professor Tom Beck, the chief curator at the Albin O. Kuhn Gallery. Professor Beck taught me how to handle archive documents and gave me a tour of special collections at the library so I could know what to expect at the Manuscript Department of the NLI. Janet McGlynn also helped to point out some logistical issues about working with the library that I needed to cover in my application.

What has been the hardest part about your research?
Being flexible. My original hypothesis (that I could anticipate which lines held the “joy” of a poem for Heaney, and trace how they evolved and carried through successive drafts) did not go quite as I planned. It turns out, Heaney’s early drafts are often remarkably similar to the final published versions. So that was a surprise. But I still learned a ton and was able to adjust and analyze his writing process in a slightly different way. I found that he struggled with the titles of poems a lot, and now I’m tracing the edits and title changes of one poem in particular that I found in his manuscripts.

What was the most unexpected thing?
I had to get permission from the publisher to take photos of poems for future reference, and it was surprisingly difficult. I thought I asked for permission in plenty of time, but it turns out I should have asked a lot earlier. In the future that will be the first thing I do.

What else are you involved in on campus?
I commute, so it is difficult for me to participate in campus organizations. I teach guitar lessons on the days I’m not at school.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
Just do it! I had heard of URAs before, but at first I assumed I was unlikely to get approved for an English project. It was easier than expected, and it was exciting to have a lot of autonomy over a project that was exactly what I wanted to study, rather than what somebody else assigned me.

The URA also gave me the chance to problem solve on my own, which was fun and scary at the same time. I had to plan a trip overseas when I had never been out of the country before, and try to anticipate all the logistical issues involved. I feel like I emailed a million different people for help, and everyone was willing to assist. You just have to ask.


Get back jack!